The more time goes by, the more I develop an affinity for Kenneth Branagh. I don’t know why; it seems random af even to me. Maybe it’s how multi-faceted he can be – he’s not the industry leader in any one thing but remains a jack of all tradesInsteader that’s stealing the show in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) as a phony wizard hot throb with a God complex, his committed devotion to Shakespeare in Hamlet (1996), to perhaps his critically acclaimed apex in Belfast (2021), the actor/director has developed a career that vacillates from silly to weird, to hilarious, heartfelt, and sometimes personal. Then, when you’ve forgotten about him, he’ll turn up in a Christopher Nolan movie like Tenet or Oppenheimer, with little fanfare, do his job, then leave. It seems fairly low maintenance for the same guy who’s also cosplaying as the most indestructible detective in movie history.
Branagh’s take on Hercule Poirot is myth-making at its most egotistical – we’re so deep in the weeds, we now even have an origin story for that fucking mustache. Yet, no matter how silly Murder on the Orient Express & Death on the Nile seem, no matter how many DMX-inspired jokes you make, the man stays committed to the bit, infusing Detective Whiskers with gravitas in the face of a world that really wants to meme him. But after adapting two of the most famous Agatha Christie novels, I don’t think anyone would have guessed Branagh would tackle Hallowe’en Party (1969). The novel above is one of Christie’s lesser-known works but centers on the supposed testimony of a toddler who claims she’s witnessed a gruesome murder. However, the story itself takes the reader to a conclusion that is a lot more ambiguous than you’d expect from the straightforward whodunit genre. But perhaps it was that very ambiguity which Kenneth Branagh and the producers felt would allow the filmmakers a lot more room for creative license:
When this teaser made its debut months ago, many viewers expressed to not even know this was a Hercule Poirot adventure until the last moments. That’s because Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green have used the rather obscure source material as an opportunity to add a supernatural bent to the proceedings. As Hallowe’en Party has fewer fans than the author’s most iconic works, there’s virtually no pushback from the audience for taking the source material in this direction. Now, a book that’s seldom talked about has new life in an adaptation that is capitalizing on the success of modern supernatural horror flicks. For you can’t look at this trailer and not see the influence from The Conjuring, Insidious, or Sinister.
The main story, so far as we’re told, sees Poirot invited to a seance by an author of crime fiction (Tina Fey), where the protagonist will confront a mysterious medium (Michelle Yeoh) while coming to terms with his disbelief of the otherworld. It’s a fine premise that targets two types of movie fans. Those who are readily superstitious and eagerly consume some of the supernatural franchises I’ve already mentioned. As well as those who are a little more skeptical and practical, who may find relatability in Poirot’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of ghosts and psychics.
But such a creative pivot also opens up this franchise to new possibilities. I must say, I was hardly running to the theater to see ‘Orient Express or Death on the Nile. Those were pretty straightforward adaptations and movies that definitely go into the “I’ll see it when I have time, or it hits streaming” category. But A Haunting in Venice is a test to see if this franchise has legs beyond just being a legacy branch for whodunit fans. To be fair, the movie could very well just come off as a wannabe entry in The Conjuring universe.
But if it proves to be any more than that, it could be the flavor and genre change needed to help extend a series that was in danger of becoming very stale, rewarding the film’s creative swing and opening up the possibility for future genre subversions. That’s how modern franchises stay fresh – not giving us the same sequel over and over but displaying the versatility of combining the old with the new and unexpected. This means Kenneth Branagh will find yet another reinvention in a career of reinventions. If “…and enough champagne to fill the Nile!” didn’t slow him down, then Whiskers may be around for a while longer.
Hercule Poirot will return in
Avengers 5 A Haunting in Venice on September 15, 2023.