Kenneth Branagh and his Poirot moustache deliver frightfully good fun

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(M) 103 minutes

A Haunting in Venice gets a little more serious about Hercule Poirot than Agatha Christie ever did. Played for the third time by Kenneth Branagh, he is in a reclusive mood when we first meet him. Thoroughly depressed by World War II and its aftermath, he has lapsed into uneventful anonymity in Venice, where he tends his garden, indulges in Italian pastries and ignores the hordes still clamouring to engage his services as a sleuth.

Tina Fey as Ariadne Oliver and Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in A Haunting in Venice.

It is his old friend and occasional antagonist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), described by Christie as being partly modelled on the novelist herself, who persuades him to take an interest in the mystery that powers the plot. She nags him into accompanying her to a seance conducted by Michelle Yeoh, cast as a famous spiritualist named Joyce Reynolds. While Ariadne believes Joyce is a fraud, she needs Poirot’s opinion to be thoroughly convinced.

The film is loosely drawn from Agatha Christie’s late-life whodunit Hallowe’en Party, published in 1969. The cast of characters has been reduced, the plot re-jigged and the setting given extra oomph with a switch from the English countryside in the 1960s to Venice in 1947. The seance is held in a beautiful but derelict Renaissance palazzo, which predictably turns out to be the ideal location for a haunted house mystery, living up to its suitably tragic history. There are noises in the night, murders in the dark and a storm that plays havoc with the plumbing. The curtain raiser is provided by an elaborate chandelier that suddenly falls from the ceiling and crashes to the floor.

The list of suspects is as promising as is usual in a Christie mystery. Hosting the seance is the palazzo’s glamorous owner, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly from Yellowstone), a retired opera singer who is still grieving the mysterious death of her daughter Alicia, and desperate to have Joyce conjure up her voice from the afterlife.

Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen) is Alicia’s former fiance, who loathes Rowena, and Jamie Dornan is a shell-shocked doctor hopelessly in love with her. He is at the seance with his young son Leopold, a preternaturally wise child played by Jude Hill, Dornan’s co-star and Branagh’s juvenile alter ego in his autobiographical movie Belfast.

Michelle Yeoh as famous spiritualist Joyce Reynolds in A Haunting in Venice.

This is the third Christie adaptation Branagh has directed from a script by Michael Green, and he’s in full gothic mode. Most of the action takes place inside the palazzo during a single night and most of the natural light has been supplied by strategically placed candles. The nocturnal bumps, bangs and wails are delivered at full pitch, and the editing is as staccato as the score by Tar’s composer Hildur Gudnadottir.

Thankfully, the extraordinarily prolific Green, who also scripted the droll Dwayne Johnson hit Jungle Cruise, has been canny enough to add a few sardonic touches of humour in the banter between Poirot and Ariadne. Fey strikes up a great rapport with Branagh, who seems very much at ease in the role.

However, the celebrated moustache, which resembles the tail of a small grey kitten, is a distraction and I did feel everybody was trying just a little too hard to pump up the fright factor. It should be a spoof, but it’s not witty enough and the concluding ritual, Poirot’s obligatory explanation as to who did what and why, is too convoluted to swallow.

A Haunting in Venice is released in cinemas on September 14.

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