‘A Haunting in Venice’ review: For once, Branagh doesn’t murder Agatha Christie

‘A Haunting in Venice’ review: For once, Branagh doesn’t murder Agatha Christie

On his third try, Kenneth Branagh gets an Agatha Christie movie right.

I had mostly given up on the once-heinous mystery series, dragging myself to his new “A Haunting in Venice” like I was the poor schlub who was about to be killed. 

But, while “Murder On The Orient Express” and “Death On The Nile” were hack-job excuses to force as many disparate and ghastly celebrities onscreen as possible, “Haunting” is an actual, surefooted film with strong performances and a luxurious-yet-frightful tone.

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Running time: 103 minutes. Rated PG-13 (some strong violence, disturbing images and thematic elements.) In theaters Sept. 15.

It certainly helps that Branagh, who once again directs and plays mustachioed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, is not burdened by stratospheric expectations this time.

“Orient Express” and “Nile” are two of the British author’s most cherished works, had been adapted for film and TV on many occasions and starred such luminaries as Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov. 

This third entry, by contrast, is based on “Hallowe’en Party,” a largely ignored Christie title that critics gave a drubbing to when it was published back in 1969. You’ve probably never heard of it, and that’s a good thing.

Going further, Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green have relocated the action from Britain to Venice, beefing up the romance and spookiness — no offense, UK — and have all but shredded Christie’s original pages and started from scratch. Now, the story alluringly flirts with gothic horror. It’s still a whodunit, of course, but in this case a ghost might have dunit.

Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh and Kenneth BranaghTina Fey, Michelle Yeoh and Kenneth Branagh are all part of the star-studded cast of “A Haunting In Venice.” AP

We reunite with Poirot during his Italian retirement. Restless and irritable, he’s hounded by admirers who beg the world-famous detective to solve crimes. He rebuffs their advances, with the help of a local bodyguard, until American novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) shows up unannounced and invites him to the Halloween party of Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), a rich British woman.

There, a grand medium named Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) is to hold a seance to summon the spirit of Rowena’s dead daughter Alicia. Ariadne wants Poirot to debunk the psychic, and maybe get a new bestseller out of the ordeal.

But, wouldn’t you know, a reveler is murdered at the soiree! And suddenly Poirot is forced back into action.

Michelle Yeoh and the cast of Mrs. Reynolds holds a spooky Halloween seance to summon the spirit of Rowena Drake’s dead daughter Alicia.AP

The suspects? Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from the war and pines for Rowena; Reynolds’ assistants, Nicholas and Desdemona, immigrant siblings who dream of escaping to, of all places, Missouri; Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), Rowena’s stern caretaker; and Ferrier’s little son Leopold (Jude Hill).

And, naturally, we cannot dismiss Ariadne, Rowena, Poirot or the specters of children killed by the plague that are said the haunt the cursed manse.

While in the past I’ve found the acting in Branagh’s Christie films as wooden as the lido deck in “Death On The Nile,” everybody clicks in “Haunting,” unified by a hovering mood of terror and the spirit of ensemble.

Kelly Reilly in A Haunting In VeniceRowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) is mourning over the death of her daughter, and believes her old Venetian home is haunted.AP

Funny Fey, doing a quick-talking “His Girl Friday” voice, takes a minute to get used to, but once we do she brings a palate-cleansing lightness. Yeoh makes a natural channeler of the supernatural. And Dornan, whose doctor trembles with trauma, keeps getting better and better as “Fifty Shades of Grey” gets further in the rearview.

And, for once, the viewer can stomach Branagh’s actorly indulgences.

Also it’s a pleasure to see young Hill working with Branagh and Dornan again so soon after his smashing debut in “Belfast.” He’s a kid still, but no one-hit-wonder either.

Kenneth Branagh and Tiny Fey in A Haunting In Venice.Ariadne (Tina Fey) drags Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) to a Halloween party in Italy.AP

The ending of “A Haunting In Venice” is, I’ll admit, absurd. As always, Poirot connects the dots to solve the crime, but there are more dots here than on a basketball. The outdrawn parlor scene strains credulity, even for the murder mystery genre. However, like a Venetian gondola ride, the entertaining “Haunting” is more about the journey than the destination.

It’s taken him six years, but Branagh has finally given us a treat —  not a trick.