Genre: Mystery and Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 43 min.
Release Date: September 15th, 2023 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Kenneth Branagh Actors: Kenneth Branagh, Tina Fey, Kelly Reilly, Camille Cottin, Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan, Emma Laird, Michelle Yeoh, Kyle Allen, Ali Khan
hen notable mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) finds renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) self-exiled in Venice, she invites him to attend a Halloween party followed by a séance with the infamous medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh). When the calculating sleuth enters the notoriously haunted palazzo owned by former opera star Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), his initial skepticism of all things supernatural becomes severely tested – first by Reynolds’ convincing communion with the singer’s deceased daughter, then by a mysterious death, and finally by strange visions of vengeful ghosts. While plagued by chilling voices and shadowy specters, Poirot must attempt to discern friend from foe amongst a host of suspects, each more tormented than the last. Faithful housekeeper Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), smitten doctor Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), jilted lover Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen), bodyguard Vitale (Riccardo Scamarcio), assistant Nicholas (Ali Khan), and even precocious child Leopold (Jude Hill) all appear to have something to hide.
Scores of establishing shots full of odd angles lend to the immediate foreshadowing of this pseudo-horror premise, though Fey’s introduction counters that with her unavoidable comedienne humor. Additional details that single out the Venetian setting feel as if a Disneyland ride, though the creepier imagery – and the Halloweentime staples – return the mood to one of restless spirits and spooky corridors. With its clash of skeptics and believers, religion and pragmatism, and logical solutions versus superstitious assumptions, the stage is set for a debunking foundation not unlike genuine horror stories of psychics and exorcists. “Games are frivolous.”
Indeed, plenty of boo moments abound, not just from eerie locations (the estate itself is a thoroughly haunted dwelling), but also from anticipated yet nevertheless shocking explosions of sound – light bulbs shattering, dishes clattering, doors rapped, phones ringing, thunder booming, clocks chiming, and birds screeching, among many others. If a noise can disrupt the harmony of fleetingly brief calm, it almost certainly does (and those sound effects are amplified for good measure). And this is paired with nightmarish visions of disheveled children crying out for justice – typical horror movie scares that seem a touch like a cheat for a Poirot mystery, though this is an obvious method of sprucing up an otherwise routine sleuthing procedural. It undoubtedly enlivens the now-formulaic techniques of interrogations and hypotheses and evidential discoveries. Since this is the third time Branagh has portrayed the super-sleuth (and served as the director), a fresh gimmick must be embraced, though it’s actually nearly enough that he’s working from an Agatha Christie story (the novel “Hallowe’en Party”) never before adapted into a feature film.
“Hateful things live in this house!” To balance out the chills are the standard detective goings-on, uncovering elaborate methods of deception that place the script back into the familiar territory of a Poirot mystery (along with his rather prodigious mustache). Plus, the cast is large and they’re all suspicious. Jumpiness punctuates the usual realism, but a great deal of fun is had from unearthing rational explanations for supernatural shenanigans. Once again, the crime isn’t really meant to be solved by the audience; it’s entirely unguessable on purpose, utilizing flashbacks to show previously unknown elements or to repeat actions with extra context. Solving the murders alongside Poirot is futile. Nevertheless, the plot is engaging, despite concluding with the conventional, lengthy exposition to a room full of suspects, finally fingering the culprit as associates gasp in disbelief. Infusing a preternatural component into a Poirot episode is somewhat reminiscent of embroiling Holmes in a romance, like in “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” – a combination of two unharmonious concepts into a curiously satisfying experiment that still involves twisty whodunit essentials. “I’m changing my guess!”
– The Massie Twins