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“A Haunting in Venice” marks the third installment in director Kenneth Branagh’s series of adaptations of Agatha Christie’s famed murder mystery novels. While the film follows the path of its predecessors by starring “the world’s greatest detective” Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), it marks a shift from the previous installments through the detective’s self-imposed retirement and exile as he hearkens with the fact that death seems to follow his every move.
The film first orients the audience through a series of early-morning still shots of the city of Venice, without a soul in sight. There’s a sense of eeriness to it, but one that vanishes almost as soon as it appears. Shortly, mailworkers, nuns, students, and common people flock to the streets, bringing with them the fast paced intricacies of their everyday lives within this unique city. Although these shots are somewhat repetitive in subject, the variation of perspective keeps them interesting, mixing many typical landscape shots with overhead shots, and high angle shots. Ultimately, this series of images sets the stage very well for one of the general themes of the film: That Venice is a “gorgeous relic slowly sinking away into the sea.”
Although these dialogue-free stills of daily Venetian life are a great introduction to the setting, the narrative formally starts with the introduction of Detective Poirot’s old friend and crime novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey). She arrives in an attempt to convince Hercule to attend a Halloween party with her, hosted by a wealthy philanthropist, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), who is looking to give back to the orphans of the city. She explains that she sees the event as a great way to find inspiration for a new novel because Mrs. Drake will be holding a seance to communicate with her daughter whose untimely death was mysteriously brought about by a fall into the canals below from her bedroom balcony. Although he is reluctant to attend at first, she reminds him that he both loves the lifestyle of a detective and owes her as an old friend.
From this moment onward, the tone of the movie takes a distinct shift as Halloween night falls upon the city. The fireworks that illuminate the beautiful skyline below and the joyous screams of children partaking in Halloween traditions soon give way to a sense of eeriness. This creepiness is exacerbated by strange occurrences which take place within the philanthropists’ ornately detailed mansion, a place that — amid chandeliers falling, hummings of little girls that can be heard in the background at various points, and the walls leaking where there are no openings — seems almost haunted. These occurrences all make it clear that although this film is a murder mystery, it will be more dramatic and scary than lighthearted, dealing with more serious themes and tones than the prior adaptations of the series.
Narratively, however, the film falls short in a variety of ways. First, the movie tries to balance far too many characters and their overarching plotlines in a way that makes it virtually impossible to remain invested in each character’s story. The film then cuts to certain characters for only a few seconds, making it feel like they exist only to remind you that the character is there rather than advancing the plot in any meaningful way.
In a similar vein, the movie falls short in the motifs that it attempts to pull off to give the film deeper meaning than just another tropey murder mystery. The motif of an apple (in relation to Adam and Eve) is an excellent example of this, as it is used to initiate the plot and can therefore be seen as what caused the characters to end up in this predicament. Despite the fact that it recurs frequently on screen, it fails to function ever as anything more meaningful than this, making audiences question why the filmmakers put such emphasis on symbols like this in the first place.
Ultimately, this film is exactly what you should expect from a Kenneth Branagh murder mystery. Although visually stunning at many points, there is nothing that visually pushes the limitations of the genre. In a similar vein, the plot is somewhat predictable and overcrowded. Everything about this film falls into the cliches of the genre that make you question who exactly it was made for, down even to the final line of the film: “We cannot hide from our ghosts. Whether they are real or not. We must make peace with them.”
—Staff writer Xander D. Patton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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