A Haunting in Venice is both the best Kenneth Branagh film and the best Agatha Christie adaptation in decades. Adapted from the famed mystery writer’s 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party, Branagh returns as Hercule Poirot, the iconic Belgian detective with a penchant for sweets and the world’s most mustachioed mustache. This time the year is 1947 and we are in the Floating City. World War II has just ended and the melancholy of death and despair hangs over everything, despite the beautiful setting.

Recently retired, Poirot is lured back into the game via frenemy Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey, very good), an avatar for Christie herself. The two attend a seance thrown by Rowena Drake (a striking Kelly Reilly), an opera singer who has run out of money and reasons to live. Her daughter Alicia (Rowan Robinson) drowned in the canal just the year before. Rowena empowers the infamous, “unholy” witch Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) to communicate with Alicia from the grave. Additional guests include a troubled doctor (Jamie Dornan) and his precocious son (Jude Hill), the superstitious housekeeper (Camille Cottin), and others. To name them all would betray the predictably twisty plot.

All are trapped in a crumbling relic of a house the locals have deemed haunted. A brutal storm prevents escape, even as murders begin to mount. The production design here is sensational, courtesy of John Paul Kelly. This house is alive and it’s sad and it’s unwilling to relent. The camera work is equal to the task, Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos unwaveringly playful in their construction of frame. There is foreground when there is a need for background; there is aesthetic tumult when Poirot loses his investigative footing; there is patient, still frames when reveals come to the fore.

Branagh has always been a curio. An abashed artistic soul with a penchant for commercial success. He wasn’t thirty years old when many declared him the new Orson Welles thanks to his revelatory production of Henry V. After all, Branagh was nominated for both Best Actor and Best Director for his first feature, much like Welles was for Citizen Kane. What immediately followed was an inspired meta-noir (Dead Again), an ensemble comedy (Peter’s Friends), and another snappy Shakespeare adaptation (Much Ado About Nothing). All were respectably received if not as uproariously as his debut. Then came Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And Helena Bonham Carter. The film is an epic exercise in ego, which resulted in lackluster box office receipts and a critical reception that was tepid at best. Meanwhile, Branagh started up a relationship with Bonham Carter, resulting in the end of his celebrated marriage to the beloved Emma Thompson. Faster than you can say Artemis Fowl, Branagh was on the wrong side of his reputation.

And yet, he kept working. Kept acting. Kept directing. Thirty years later, his career has remained interesting. And unlike Welles, he seems to play ball with the money people. There’s both been underrated passion projects (Love Labour’s Lost, Sleuth) and watchable blockbusters (Cinderella, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit). In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that the guy who played Wallander on television and directed the first Thor movie would make a new Poirot series. Branagh was made for this character, these mysteries. He’s permitted to chew scenes in front of the camera and dramatize with a capital D behind the camera.

In so many ways, A Haunting in Venice feels like some sort of culmination. Sure, he’s no Orson Welles. But maybe each generation gets the Orson Welles they deserve. If we’re being honest, what more can we ask for?

A Haunting in Venice is now in theaters.

Grade: B+

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