It must be interesting to be Kenneth Branagh. At one time, he was the sole proprietor of films based on Shakespeare’s plays, cutting his teeth on the Henry V’s and Hamlets of the world. This, sprinkled with the occasional “Wild Wild Wests” of the world and a single appearance in “Harry Potter,” leads him to have something of a career pivot. Sure, he’ll keep up appearances in his “Oppenheimers” and what have you, but it seems more and more clear that he is indignantly adamant about becoming the definitive Hercule Poirot. Did we ask for one? I don’t remember asking for this. I didn’t ask, but I think it’d be weird if we didn’t acknowledge it, right? Right?
After his many years of globetrotting and inspecting, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is living up retirement in the streets (or, rather, canals) of Venice. He, along with his bodyguard Vitale (Riccardo Scamarcio), are invited to a seance by an old friend, detective fiction author Adriane Oliver (Tina Fey). This seance, on the night of Halloween, is taking place at the decrepit palazzo of one Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), famed opera soprano. At this palazzo lie many dark memories. Legend tells of an orphanage that locked its children in the basement to starve during the plague years. More recently, Rowena’s daughter, Alicia (Rowan Robinson), committed suicide in this house a year prior. The seance, led by the mysterious Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) and her assistant Desdemona (Emma Laird) attempts to reach out to and speak with the spirit of Alicia. In attendance, we find many who touched the life of Alicia, former flame Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen), superstitious nanny Olga Seminioff (Camille Cottin), family doctor Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) and his admittedly creepy son Leopold (Jude Hill). Are there really spirits about? What happened to Alicia? Poirot intends to get to the bottom of whatever runs about the halls of this sinking mansion.
To call this the best of Branagh’s Poirot trilogy would not be saying much. In one, a middling effort on the slopes of the Alps. The other, an adventure on a boat that is at times competent and other times offensive to the observant viewer. This, I would posit, is the most self-aware of the three, and I would call that a great success compared to the other two. Despite the occasional odd performance, Branagh’s refined charisma as a detective who both denies yet needs his calling is always a treat. In Poirot, we get almost a fish-out-of-water experience, taking the typical Agatha Christie detective and putting them in a setting fit for an Edgar Allan Poe sob story. The camera work in this exemplifies the tangible strangeness of the setting, placing characters in less of the frame to allow this palazzo to almost visually eat these characters alive in nearly every non-dialogue shot. This film is really a feast for the eyes if you do care to look. Outside of that, I would say that the cover of ambiguity toward the end is taken back more than I’d like, but at the end of the day, this is still Agatha Christie through and through.
You know, as odd as it may seem, I’m glad that Kenneth Branagh has enough clout in the industry to get some money together to put on a ridiculous mustache and a silly French accent to talk to all his actor friends in movies like these. In the age of the serious drama and the irreverent comic book film, I don’t know if there will ever not be a place for well-made vanity projects such as these.