Kenneth Branagh is a Good Director, and A Haunting in Venice Proves It

It’s time to give the filmmaker his due.

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Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in 'A Haunting in Venice'
20th Century Studios

Kenneth Branagh has never been one of the most revered directors of his generation. He has, nonetheless, carved out an impressive filmmaking career for himself. As a director, he’s proven over the years to be a favorite among actors, and, despite what some critics would have you believe, most of the films he’s directed have been well-reviewed. Why, then, has he never been fully accepted by cinephiles?

One could argue that Branagh is simply a type of filmmaker that has become increasingly rare nowadays and, therefore, difficult to categorize. He isn’t an auteur on the same scale or skill level as, say, Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, or Jane Campion, nor is he a talentless hack. He is, instead, a totally capable journeyman director, which is to say that he’s never made a full-blown masterpiece, but he has made a handful of well-constructed (and well-funded) Hollywood projects.

Branagh mostly traffics in the kind of lightly personal, immensely entertaining studio fare that used to be a priority for Hollywood, and nowhere is that clearer than A Haunting in Venice. The film, Branagh’s third Hercule Poirot effort, is his best Agatha Christie adaptation to date, and one of the best showcases for himself as a director that he’s ever made.

A Haunting in Venice is a profoundly entertaining film — and a creative triumph for Kenneth Branagh.

20th Century Studios

Every shot in A Haunting in Venice is a Choice. At no point throughout the film does it feel like Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos ever decided to just put the camera in the easiest or most convenient place. The film is, from a plot perspective, a fairly straightforward murder mystery. The story it tells, however, is one concerned with matters of death and the afterlife. Its characters are, like many of Agatha Christie’s creations, souls in perpetual unrest — driven to the brink of insanity by the ghosts they just can’t seem to outrun.

For A Haunting of Venice to meet the demands of its story, it has to create not only a sense of unease but also inescapable, suffocating tragedy. Fortunately, Branagh manages exactly that. From its opening, cockeyed Dutch angle, which immediately introduces the viewer to a visibly skewed version of Venice, to the moments when its director literally straps a camera to his body as he runs, the film is full of images, visual choices, and stylistic flourishes that serve to disorient you.

That feeling is further heightened whenever Branagh hints that the ghostly rumors surrounding the film’s supposedly haunted Venetian palazzo may be true by introducing the sound of children softly singing in the distance. Together, Branagh and his team make full use of A Haunting in Venice’s sound design — placing the movie’s ethereal songs so far away in the mix that you’ll likely think at first, as I did, that the noise is coming from outside your movie theater auditorium.

It’s a chilling effect, but it’s one that’s only possible thanks to the careful decision-making of Branagh and his collaborators.

A Haunting in Venice is overflowing with bold creative choices. Not all of them work, but they’re all appreciated.

20th Century Studios

Behind the camera, Branagh has made more than his fair of good and great movies. (His Cinderella remains, in this writer’s humble opinion, one of Disney’s only genuinely charming live-action remakes.) His talent is on considerable display throughout A Haunting in Venice, though, which is as visually experimental, playful, and measured as any other he’s made. Throughout its runtime, there’s a clear desire on Branagh’s part to do whatever he can to give the film the alluringly moody, gothic tone that it requires.

In recent years, his fiercest critics have pointed to his playful, occasionally uneven visual style as proof that he lacks a distinct directorial vision. A Haunting in Venice proves those critics wrong. Above all else, the film suggests that Branagh’s guiding motivation may ultimately be his own desire to truly and simply try. Consequently, even when the choices he makes don’t always work, they still demand to be appreciated. At the very least, they usually result in films that are, like A Haunting in Venice, effortlessly watchable, which is a feat in and of itself.

A Haunting in Venice is now playing in theaters.

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