‘A Haunting In Venice’ Is a Moody Whodunit That Highlights Agatha Christie’s Interest in Spiritualism
Clockwise from top left: Kelly Reilly, Jamie Dornan, Michelle Yeoh, Kenneth Branagh and Tina Fey in 'A Haunting in Venice.' Photo: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios
“There is no psychic phenomena—only psychic pain,” a character declares in A Haunting in Venice (in cinemas Friday Sept. 15).
Inspired by Hallowe’en Party, Agatha Christie’s 1969 novel of suspense set at children’s fête, it is a cryptic haunted tale. The source material is a two-fold mystery: who killed the guest who bragged about seeing a murder and what (if anything) did they really witness?
For his third outing as supercilious Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot, director and star Kenneth Branagh, 62, remixes elements of the novel and transposes the English country house setting to the exotic locale of 1947 Venice. It makes for a convenient way of exploring not only the shadowy streets and canals of the city but the long shadow of Second World War psychological trauma on characters such as Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) and his son (Jude Hill, last seen together in Branagh’s Academy Award-winning Belfast).
After the Second World War and a career steeped in death, violence and injustice, Poirot has lost faith and is retired. Literary depictions of Poirot’s retirement generally have him meticulous clipping hedges in a sleepy English village; here, the worldly sleuth has opted for Venice and tends his palazzo rooftop garden, protected from solicited cases by a bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio). (Sadly this is just before fellow eccentric and art collector Peggy Guggenheim settled in the city, or I would have expected a neighbourly cameo.)
He is reluctantly drawn out by a challenge from his friend, the world-renowned mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey, 53, as the autobiographical character through which Christie expressed her disdain for being saddled with a popular sleuthing creation), who needs his help debunking a celebrity psychic medium (Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh, 61).
They attend a charity Halloween party and séance at a former orphanage. Local lore says it’s haunted by the souls of children abandoned there to die during a plague, and the dilapidated palazzo is now owned by an opera diva (Kelly Reilly, 46), whose beloved daughter died the previous year. The seance is an attempt to contact her from beyond the grave.
The set-up is gorgeously spine-chilling, with shades of the gothic supernatural premise of The Others (2001) and genuinely frightening reminiscences of The Innocents (1961, based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw), in which a governess believes the children in her charge are haunted.
In press notes, Branagh singles out what he calls Christie’s “very subtle readings of human behaviour,” while screenwriter Michael Green says he was also influenced by her short fictions that touch on the supernatural — especially the titular story in The Last Seance, a 2019 Christie collection organized on a paranormal theme (it also includes “The Mysterious Mr. Quin,” another in which she indulged her paranormal interest). Branagh’s mash-up amplifies these ongoing but lesser-known aspects of her writing about strange phenomena and psychics — be they authentic or hustlers — in tales of crime around inheritance, identity and greed.
Agatha Christie and Spiritualism
Christie lived from 1890 to 1976 and laid the foundation (some might say formula) of her wildly successful detective stories early on, but throughout her six-decade career also continuously revised and refreshed elements in order to keep up with the times. The author’s early exposure to 1920s fads of spiritualism comes up in small ways through Egyptian and supernatural details sprinkled into the stories set in the Middle East, for example. Like Arthur Conan Doyle and his preoccupation with occult photographs, Christie returned to the idea of psychics and deception regularly, looking for a natural explanation (fraud, self-delusion) for strange occurrences and deaths.
Later, she toyed with sinister premonitions of death, as with 1961’s The Pale Horse (written when Dennis Wheatley’s occult novels were popular) and Sleeping Murder, the final Miss Marple novel in which the amateur detective turns ghost hunter. Even if dark forces and malevolence often tend to be human in origin, the writing kept pace with the zeigeist, following along the cultural shift and reader appetites.
In the 1960s, following the zeitgeist meant a rising fascination with Freudian psychoanalysis and plumbing the unconscious mind to uncover past trauma or repression (through LSD and other means) and the possible psychosis that revived films in the “old dark house” genre — set in castles, asylums, hotels, and apartment complexes. At heart, they’re whodunits in which people are haunted by spirits, by the past, or by projecting their own anxieties.
Hallowe’en Party, published when the author was 79, nods to the occult explicitly through this exchange with one of the tween guests: “‘E.S.P. they call it, Extra sensory perception,’ she added in the tone of one pleased with being thoroughly conversant with the terms of the times.”
It had been just a decade since the publication of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House — a landmark of horror fiction considered one of the definitive literary ghost stories of the century. (It concerns a group of psychic researchers studying a house in order to determine if it is, in fact, haunted.)
To the uninitiated, A Haunting in Venice admittedly feels less like the familiar — and so-called cozy — traditional Christie than like Daphne du Maurier, whose compelling and creepy “Don’t Look Now” short story about a grieving couple’s fateful visit to Venice inspired Nicolas Roeg’s thriller starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie thriller. Or, Robert Wise’s classic adaption of the Jackson story The Haunting (which marks its 60th anniversary this season; I’m presenting it at Toronto’s historic Revue Cinema Oct. 25).
An Atmospheric Whodunnit
Overall, A Haunting in Venice is a big improvement from the claustrophobic revenge melodrama of Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and the preposterous CGI artificiality of Death on the Nile (2022). It’s moody and unlike so many glib and winking whodunnits of late, earnest and un-ironic. It’s a throwback to the types of early horror films like The Old Dark House (1932) and Black Narcissus (1947) that Branagh had the creative team view prior to filming. The Venetian setting makes for an unsettling All Hallows’ Eve, with the crepuscular revels shrouded in eerie fog.
The atmospheric cinematography (by Haris Zambarloukos) goes all-in on creative cinematic tools, from the opening shot of pigeons scurrying on the wet cobblestones of Piazza San Marco as the tower bell gongs ominously to shooting through obstructions and using foregrounded objects as a framing device, as well as canted camera angles, to visually express the claustrophobic and off-kilter tone of the movie.
Early in the movie, there’s an unsettling and mesmerizing shadow puppet show, one of several memorable set pieces that ratchet up the tension. John Paul Kelly’s production design is as striking as it is essential to effect. Exteriors lavishly filmed on location (the Bridge of Sighs and Ponte Conzafelzi) ground the elaborate haunted palazzo set to make it (and the unexplained phenomena) feel alive and realistic. It was built on a soundstage at Pinewood Studios and, uncharacteristically, completely enclosed with frescoed ceilings. It’s all candlelight, cloaks and Venetian masks, with moonlight reflecting off the water and, during the fateful night that suspects are trapped by a storm, complete with both the shatter of curlicued blown glass chandeliers and lashes of rain against the crumbling palazzo walls.
An atmospheric whodunnit that bridges mystery and thriller with psychological damage may seem a far cry from Poirot’s twitching moustache or Miss Marple and her profusions of fleecy pink knitting. But the solution is pure Christie.
“Crime is like drugs,” Christie told the Express in a 1922 interview. “Once a writer of detective stories and, though you may stray into the bypaths of poetry or psychology, you inevitably return — the public expect it of you.”