We start with the main twist, in that there’s no Agatha Christie story called A Haunting in Venice. Kenneth Branagh’s latest Poirot outing has been quite loosely inspired by her 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party, transposed to Venice in 1947 with a radically different plot, cast rather drably, and directed by Branagh with wildly overwrought Gothic flourishes.
Uncorking the fun of Christie certainly mandates a sense of style, but not Branagh’s answer to that, which supplies more canted angles, wacky lenses and portentous sound effects than The Bride of Frankenstein – or his own hectic revamp from 1994.
None of this is the fault of screenwriter Michael Green, for whom you feel quite sorry. He has come up with something both of Branagh’s earlier Poirot films sorely lacked – narrative novelty. His story might have worked, if Branagh had the sangfroid to let it unfold with a steadier hand.
Ten years after Death on the Nile, Poirot is minding his own business when the crime novelist Ariadne Oliver (a gratingly chummy Tina Fey) invites him to debunk a dubious spiritualist called Mrs Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) by attending a Hallowe’en séance. This is at the crumbling palazzo of Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), a widow whose daughter Alicia has lately committed suicide by jumping into the canal. Before the night is out, someone else has been hurled brutally to their death from a balcony, and Poirot orders a lock-in to get to the bottom of it.
Could it be the brooding housekeeper (Camille Cottin), the doctor traumatised by liberating Bergen-Belsen (Belfast callback Jamie Dornan), an omnipresent Italian policeman (Riccardo Scamarcio), the American fiancé (Kyle Allen) who jilted Alicia, or one of the others? Maybe Jude Hill, Belfast’s 13-year-old lead, who’s Dornan’s son again? Not all will survive to find out.
Meanwhile, we get bees in the basement, murder attempts during apple-bobbing, and a ludicrous shot when Branagh waddles about in close-up with the camera attached to him on a rig. These Danny-Boyle-esque stylings are a far cry from jazzing up proceedings: they just distract us from following the plot.
Green’s solution is tidy if trite, but then so’s a lot of Christie: it needed a much better performance from the culprit, whose identity I can protect by saying that no one’s work is any more inspired. We don’t suspect Branagh’s Poirot, even though he continues to lack either Ustinov’s companionability or David Suchet’s prissy precision. It isn’t anyone’s ghost, though a few pop up. I may be wrong, but I’m fairly sure the murderer this time is the cinematographer.
12A cert, 103 min. In cinemas from Friday September 15