‘A Haunting In Venice’ An Entertaining Film, But Also A Missed Opportunity

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“A Haunting In Venice” is fun for people who like whodunnits and Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of Hercule Poirot — but it can’t pay off the themes of faith versus reason that it sets up.

The film once again features Branagh’s return as both director and star in his third outing of movies based on Agatha Christie’s novels. The movies have had lukewarm reception from both critics and audiences, but have made enough money and been enjoyable enough for Branagh to make another one. 

This one is very, very loosely based on the Christie novel “Hallowe’en Party,” one of her later and less popular works, which I assume they chose because fewer people would mind them basically doing their own thing with it. 

READ: Should Christians Avoid Horror Films Like ‘The Nun II’?

“A Haunting In Venice” finds Poirot retired and living in seclusion in Venice until an old friend, Mrs. Ariadne Oliver (played by Tina Fey), persuades him to join her for a seance to expose a supposed medium (Michelle Yeoh) attempting to help a grieving mother (Kelly Reily) contact her deceased daughter.

What “A Haunting In Venice” does best is give us a very entertaining cosplay of Branagh and other well-known actors of classic Poirot and characters.Branagh is not at all a faithful interpretation of Christie’s classic detective (his atheism and emotional stuntedness are two of the most obvious diversions), but it is an extremely charming and enjoyable one with his golden retriever homebody nature crossed with self-assured intellect. 

Fay’s Mrs. Oliver also diverges in some important ways from the original character, but there is enough of Poirot and Oliver’s original charms to still feel some of the original enjoyment of their dynamic, and the changes to their relationship, are also equally entertaining. 

The film also succeeds as a murder mystery, not diverging too much at all from classic formula even with a supposed supernatural horror sheen. In fact, it feels as if most of Branagh’s Poirot movies are like a murder mystery that you might see on the BBC, one that embraces shamelessly its genre and attempts to appeal to people who are already fans of it rather than contort itself into being a modern Hollywood blockbuster like the previous entries tried (and failed) to do.  

In a sense, the film is comforting, like a bowl of chicken soup, for those of us who find joy in these tropes and characters. Where the movie is weakest, however, is with its horror aesthetic and themes of faith and doubt. 

The movie goes for a gothic horror vibe with its seances and haunted houses and Dutch angles. And yet, virtually every trope or technique that Branagh uses to make the “spooky” vibe he wants for the movie feels too on the nose and clumsy to actually be scary. The film relies on cheap (and predictable) jumpscares and dramatic aesthetics to elicit fear without building the psychological groundwork for the audience to truly be afraid. It makes the attempts fall flat at best and, at worst, unintentionally hilarious. 

Of the film’s failures however, its themes are the most disappointing. One thing that has always set Branagh’s Poirot apart was its attempts to infuse the character arc in each of its films with a moral or psychological theme. In the first, “Murder on The Orient Express,” it was Poirot learning that good and evil are complicated rather than black and white. In “Death on The Nile” it was Poirot learning it was unhealthy to cut yourself off from your feelings. In “A Haunting In Venice” it is Poirot wrestling with a loss of faith. Most of these did not work very well. (Attempting to give Poirot a dramatic backstory for his mustache is something I will never stop making fun of them for). 

Regardless of whether the dramatic third act worked in the previous movies, at the very least they did pay them off. But in this film, they don’t. Instead they are largely dropped and resolved without explanation. This is particularly disappointing because the themes about loss of faith that they set up are particularly interesting. At the start of the film, Poirot is retired. It’s implied he is due to being overwhelmed with all of the death he’s experienced that he has lost faith in all of it. But the film does not stop there. It parallels Poirot’s loss of faith in his vocation with his loss of faith in God, both in how it’s made him sad and how both come from how much evil and suffering he’s witnessed.

In a scene from the film, Poirot explains this explicitly in a conversation with the medium Joyce Reynolds:

Joyce Reynolds: You don’t believe in the soul’s endurance after death?

Hercule Poirot: I have lost my faith.

Joyce Reynolds: How sad for you.

Hercule Poirot: Yes, it is most sad. The truth is sad. Please understand, madam. I would welcome with open arms, any honest sign of devil or demon or ghost, for if there is a ghost, there is a soul. If there is a soul, there is a God who made it. And if we have God, we have everything, meaning order, justice. But I have seen too much of the world, countless crimes, two wars, the bitter evil of human indifference. And I conclude, no. No God, no ghosts, with respect, no mediums who can speak to them.

As a Christian, I am always interested in how both believers and non-believers wrestle with faith and doubt. Even though I am a Christian, there’s typically a lot I resonate with in how an atheist wrestles with faith. A recent Simon Pegg-led movie called “Nandor Fodor and The Talking Mongoose” featured a character and theme very similar to this, with a paranormal psychologist attempting to disprove instances of the supernatural even as he desperately wishes he could find one that would hold up under scrutiny just so he could believe.

Poirot — even in the book this film is based on — is a steadfast apostle of the truth. In the book, he tells one character: “You want beauty. Beauty at any price. For me, it is truth I want. Always truth.”

But neither “A Haunting In Venice” nor “Nandor Fodor” ever answer the question why, to the heroes, the truth matters so much more than happiness. The question is posed, then dropped and never brought up again. The whole theme of faith is largely dropped. Throughout Poirot’s visions in the movie that lead him to wonder if he’s experiencing the supernatural — along with their eventual explanation — these doubts of doubt never become springboards for deeper character or existential examination. And since these ideas and emotions are the crux the movie was basing its larger themes on, dropping them rather than going deeper cheapens its emotional resonance. 

Of course, I have a very simple answer as to why I prefer truth to happiness: Truth doesn’t let you down. If you choose happiness based on lies, at some point it will betray you. If you decide that the bridge in front of you is steady when it’s not, then you will fall into the chasm below. Or worse, if you tell others that the bridge is steady when it isn’t, they will fall into the chasm below.

In this way, it is movies about faith from the perspective of atheism — such as this one — made not by Christians that make me think that those who don’t believe in God have no answer to the problem of reconciling truth and happiness. This way of thinking, according to the atheist artists themselves, cannot lead to happiness. They must either resign themselves to misery or somehow take a sprinkling of belief and incorporate it into their own worldview in order to comfort themselves. 

It might be worth challenging those who believe this, why do you think you have to choose? Certainly, the original Poirot didn’t think he had to choose, nor did Christie. She glorified him for his reason and made him an unapologetic Catholic. Some of the greatest minds have always been Christians, including Thomas Aquinas, John Newton, John Locke and William Lane Craig. C.S. Lewis, another intellectual who was also a believer, made the case that the need for happiness in the atheist that can’t be satisfied by that belief system itself was evidence of its falsehood. As he said in his classic work of apologetics: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

If “A Haunting In Venice” had thought through its own themes half as deeply as I just did, the results would have been sublime. 

“A Haunting In Venice” is in theaters now.





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