Kenneth Branagh revives the classics. Freshening up the familiar is his main ambition as a director: Henry V, Cinderella, Frankenstein, Thor, Hamlet – they’ve all had the treatment. And now, as if a test case, here’s his third reinvention of the hitherto preposterous figure of Hercule Poirot.
Agatha Christie created Poirot in 1920 (The Mysterious Affair at Styles) and went on to use him in 33 novels over the next 55 years, his final call being in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case in 1975. The reading public loved him with his simple identifiers: the moustache, the patent leather shoes, the little grey cells. Agatha Christie herself did not – calling him as a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, egocentric little creep” in 1960 – but she continued to oblige her fans, nevertheless.
Branagh, with screenwriter Michael Green and co-producer Ridley Scott, began with a plush remake of that great warhorse Murder on the Orient Express in 2017, undeterred by the classic status of the Sidney Lumet version of 1974 with Albert Finney. Branagh as director brought Branagh as actor to the fore. Poirot here is more three-dimensional than usual, given a backstory, his fussiness treated as plainly OCD. The movie made $352.8m worldwide against a production budget of $55m.
Death on the Nile followed, filmed in 2019 but, owing to Covid, not released until 2022, taking only $137.3m at the box office but doing well on streaming. This time, we see Poirot in the First World War, severely injured and losing his great love, so explaining both his tragic sense of life and the cover-up moustaches. Branagh always brings a certain solidity, sometimes veering into stolidity, to his characters – and his Poirot, whose rigid facial hair resembles the prow of a speedboat, if not an alien respirator, is a lot more substantial than the fanciful 5ft 4in Poirot of tradition.
A Haunting in Venice goes even further into creating a new Poirot universe. Ostensibly based on Hallowe’en Party of 1969, it’s one of Christie’s feebler efforts. Poirot is summoned to an English village by his friend, the novelist Ariadne Oliver, after a 13-year-old girl was drowned in an apple-bobbing tub at a party. Almost nothing of this story has been taken over into the film, save some of the names and the Halloween occasion. So here is an almost entirely new creation in the Christie franchise, authorised by her great-grandson James Prichard, one of the executive producers.
It is 1947. Poirot (Branagh, with more modest moustaches this time) has retired to Venice, having been traumatised by another war. He tends his pot plants, gets pastries delivered twice a day and employs a tough bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio) to deny entry to all supplicants. But his friend Ariadne (Tina Fey, talking fast), who has featured him in her most successful books, lures him out.
Celebrated opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) has ceased to perform since the death of her teenage daughter a year ago. Her only companions are a housekeeper (Camille Cottin), the former family doctor (Jamie Dornan), and his precocious son Leopold (Jude Hill). Rowena is planning a Halloween party for the local children in her crumbling palazzo, to be followed by a seance conducted by the famous medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), in which she hopes to make contact with her late daughter. Ariadne, needing a good story for her next book, challenges Poirot to expose the medium if he can. Indeed, he soon detects trickery – but that does not stop darkness rising. A storm erupts. Murder is committed. The house seems possessed. Poirot’s rationality is shaken.
A Haunting in Venice is a curious cocktail of a whodunnit and an old-fashioned haunted-house horror, looking right back to The Old Dark House of 1932. The lighting is dim, the camera angles wildly erratic, the palazzo crazily stagey. Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir contributes a brilliant soundtrack of fractured keening. Yet the film ends up relying on sudden jumps and crashes to startle, beginning with a scene in which Poirot is telling the medium that, having seen countless crimes, two wars and the bitter evil of human indifference, he cannot believe in God, ghosts or mediums, when a chandelier smashes down from the ceiling to make him think again.
So this is an interesting evolution – film-making derived from Agatha Christie but no longer sticking to her script. Those persuaded that the best modern Agatha Christie film is Knives Out, not an Agatha Christie film at all, may need to think again too.
“A Haunting in Venice” is in cinemas from 15 September
[See also: Agatha Christie’s secret worlds]
This article appears in the 13 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Revenge of the Trussites