Sunday, September 17, 2023

Dark and Stormy Fright: A HAUNTING IN VENICE

It’s fitting that such a theatrical ham of an actor as Kenneth Branagh, so good at making full course meals out of others’ words, would be drawn, as director, to inhabit others’ works. His directorial career is full of echoes and inhabitations both literary (Shakespeare, Shelley) and filmic (Hitchcock, Lean). This doesn’t always lead to a good movie, but he’s a man of ostentatious Good Taste in a jolly old English way as befits a graduate (and current president) of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. His latest work as filmmaker, A Haunting in Venice, is his third turn with an Agatha Christie novel, returning as director and star in the role of famous detective Hercule Poirot. It is the best of these three—after Murder on the Orient Express’s airless exercises and over-gilded energy, and Death on the Nile’s expansive melodrama and bitter undercurrent. Compared to those, it has the smallest ensemble (Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh, Kelly Reilly, and a two-man Belfast reunion). But such spareness successfully builds on this series’ best assets: a sense of world-weary cynicism held back by a relentless cold detective logic that makes even the darkest edges and dreary deaths solvable with a sharp mind and steady investigation.

This one’s literally dripping in atmosphere. The setting is a damp Venetian palazzo on a dark and stormy night, the wind battering the windows, waves crashing into the walls, lights flickering, faucets dripping, interiors clammy and steps slippery. He films it like Welles might, in intense canted closeups reminiscent of Mr. Arkadin and snaky shadows like Touch of Evil. (To keep what Leonard Maltin might call the “Wellesian tomfoolery” going, a cut to a shrieking bird has to be a nod to Kane, and an early shot of a dramatic iron-gated gondola garage and a masked and robed figure is reminiscent of the only extant scene of Welles’ abandoned attempt at Merchant of Venice.) These surface pleasures are fun and potentially shallow, but Branagh finds plenty of percolating character beats and sneaky suspense to keep interest boiling with pop depths somberly intimated. In this locked-room mystery, Branagh is cranking up the spookiness and the sadness in equal measure, letting a blurry, bleary, midnight mood creep around corners and lurk in shadows.

As always in these stories, the murderer is in plain sight, and the cast of recognizable names stumble about in fear and suspicion, driven backwards into their frazzled psyches and paranoia as they try to survive the night. Christie’s sense of social status and class concerns takes a backseat to the tightening tensions and grief-stricken group. They were gathered for a seance: a mother who lost her daughter, a father damaged by war, a young son grappling with his father’s illness. (The seance itself is a fine, formulaic balance between sinister silence and sudden smashes.) Now they’re waiting out the storm while Poirot and his mustache must ask them enough questions to figure out the ghost of a clue. They’re as haunted by death and mystery as the film is by its influences—and its somehow a pleasing combination. For all the plot’s twists and turns, biggest surprise for me, though, was discovering that I’ve grown quite fond of Branagh’s broad take on Poirot with his puffed-up eccentricities and earnest melancholy. Beneath the starched facial hair and chewy accent there’s a real character there.

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