Kenneth Branagh has found a nice rhythm in his Hercule Poirot mysteries, serving as director, producer and star. “A Haunting in Venice,” his third go-round with writer Michael Green, derives its main wrinkle from the vaguely supernatural tone, a just-in-time-for-Halloween adornment that might add a small commercial boost to a formula otherwise as neatly manicured as the great detective’s moustache.
Frankly, this modern return to the Agatha Christie stories could have (and probably should have) wrapped up after the Covid-delayed “Death on the Nile,” a star-studded follow-up to “Murder on the Orient Express,” which itself was fine but didn’t quite measure up to the 1974 version with Albert Finney.
“A Haunting” brings yet another layer to Poirot by revisiting him in 1947, finding him unhappily retired in the wake of World War II, before a brash mystery writer (Tina Fey, clearly having a ball vamping it up with this ’40s-style role) lures him back with a tantalizing challenge: Determining if a psychic (Michelle Yeoh) is truly able to communicate with the dead, or how she achieves the ruse.
Ever the rational man, Poirot dismisses the prospect of anything supernatural – “You are here to discredit me,” the psychic sneers at him – but he agrees to attend a séance at the supposedly haunted home of a wealthy woman (“Yellowstone’s” Kelly Reilly), seeking to contact the daughter who died of an apparent suicide.
The event brings together an assortment of players connected to the girl, and soon leaves behind a fresh body to give Poirot a new case that he can’t exactly ignore. As a bonus, the weather contributes to creating a haunted-house scenario where nobody can leave, fueling the horror-movie atmosphere.
Branagh might go a little overboard on those flourishes, but he again creates a nice showcase for his international cast, among them Jude Hill, the young star of the director’s deeply personal “Belfast,”as the precocious son of the doctor (Jamie Dornan, again playing Hill’s dad) responsible for treating the late girl.
While there’s a decidedly old-fashioned quality to these movies, Branagh has managed to both retrofit Christie (the actual novel is titled “Hallowe’en Party”) for the 21st century, capitalize on the international locales and make the Poirot character, with his abundant and amusing tics and quirks, his own.
Whether that means his version of Poirot will be back again, “A Haunting in Venice” continues a brand of breezy entertainment that suggests whatever the detective’s goals, retirement doesn’t appear to be in the cards.
“A Haunting in Venice” premieres September 15 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.