Directed by Kenneth Branagh | Written by Michael Green, adapting the book Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie | 103 min | ▲▲△△△ | Disney+
The wild success of this franchise never ceases to surprise, what with director-star Branagh the unlikely lead, his outreaaagous Belgian accent and even more outreaaagous moustache. This, his third movie featuring Agatha Christie’s famed detective, Hercule Poirot, still clings to the big screen in its eighth week even as it’s now available on the Disney streaming service.
The first two — Murder On The Orient Express and Death On The Nile — were entertaining enough in a stubbornly middlebrow fashion, though overly and unnecessarily goosed with expensive-looking, glossy CGI. This one seems less concerned with faking its exteriors — Venice hasn’t changed much since 1947 when this is set — and, anyway, most of it is staged on an enormous set, a multi-roomed manse.
Branagh and his DP, Haris Zambarloukos, choose oblique angle camera placements and a lot of wide-angled shots for a self-consciously spooky look. It’s distracting more than creepy, but full marks to John Paul Kelly’s production design, the deep colours in the wood and ironwork always give us something to look at aside from the actors. It would be nice if Branagh cared to offer some geography — the house is filled with rooms, but we don’t understand how they’re connected to each other. Some sense of layout would’ve been helpful to provide suspense.
Once again Branagh has assembled a sterling ensemble, amongst them Tina Fey as a American crime writer inspired by Poirot’s exploits, Kelly Reilly as an opera star grieving her daughter’s death, Jamie Dornan as a shell-shocked doctor, Michelle Yeoh as a psychic who may be a charlatan, and the young star of Belfast, Jude Hill, as a clever lad who enjoys reading Poe.
The set-up has Poirot in a semi-depressed semi-retirement. Fey’s author drags him to a Halloween Party in post-war Venice at a haunted house filled with children who all seem to understand spoken English — there’s charmingly implausible and then there’s insultingly stupid, and this picture crosses the line early on. The book was set in England, but Branagh only bothers to update the story to Italy in the most shallow fashion.
A storm traps the group in the gothic pile after the kids have all left. Reilly’s character holds a seance in order to contact her dead daughter led by late arrival, Yeoh’s spiritualist. Naturally, there’s more death to come this evening, which is enough to bring a curious Poirot out of his sulk.
The film definitely improves in the second act when it allows a little more humour to creep into the tale — Fey, especially, is a source of many of those laughs with her terrific timing, but is less convincing when required to share more than her wit.
But while Branagh has made some solid aesthetic choices here bringing in these gothic notes, the reveal of the murderer — and the inevitability of other characters’ complicity — doesn’t seem nearly as surprising this time out. That could be due to diminishing returns of franchise material, or it could be this one is just a little too predictable.
Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if Branagh continues to plunder Christie’s books for more Poirot down the road. He’s got a taste for it now.