The connected case of Kenneth Branagh and Agatha Christie
Branagh’s A Haunting in Venice and Christie’s Hallowe’en Party create a sinister world of shadows, secrets, and surprises
Kenneth Branagh is back on the case as professional super sleuth Hercule Poirot. The iconic detective’s obsession with order and method, luxuriant mooch, overinflated ego, and focus on tapping the power of the “little grey cells” will ensure that the latest Agatha Christie onscreen offering entertains and surprises.
After the success of Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and Death on the Nile (2022), Branagh returns for a third time as Poirot. He’s amply and ably surrounded by an ensemble cast: Michelle Yeoh, Tina Fey, Jamie Dornan, Kelly Reilly, Jude Hill, Emma Laird, Ali Khan, Riccardo Scamarcio, and Camille Cottin. Award-winning composer Hildur Guønadøttir is behind the music score.
Releasing a month ahead of Halloween, the book gets a spooky makeover and a Gothic touch, to emerge a “supernatural thriller”, in Branagh’s words.
The cinematic adaptation is set in post-World War II Venice on All Hallows’ Eve. Now retired and living in self-imposed exile in the world’s most glamorous city, the detective reluctantly emerges from retirement to attend a séance at a decaying, haunted palazzo. But obviously, crime remains his faithful companion (sorry, Captain Hastings!) and Poirot is soon thrust into a sinister world of shadows, secrets, and surprises when a guest is murdered. It’s up to him now, mon ami, to uncover the killer.
But Branagh’s Poirot refuses to believe in the supernatural, reiterating there “must be a rational answer for all of this”. Pressed to admit that he’s up against something bigger than he is, he has a loud, one-word answer: NO. “No one shall leave until I find if the living have been killed by the dead,” he thunders.
Branagh, a prolific actor, writer, and director, is still remembered for his turn as Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002). Apart from the Christie adaptations, his other projects as director include Thor (2011) and the semi-biographical and acclaimed Belfast (2021). He began filming the newest instalment in the Agatha Christie Cinematic Universe last year, splitting production between Venice, Italy, and Pinewood Studios in London, England.
To fans of the book, it’s clear that the movie adaptation isn’t faithful to the source material; it significantly veers off the path taken by the Agatha Christie novel.
Published in 1969 and set in the small English village of Woodleigh Common, Hallowe’en Party features Poirot and mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver.
The plot is simple: On Halloween, all village children are assembled for a party at Apple Trees house that is being set up for fun, games, and more. Oliver is there to meet a friend and lend a helping hand, and the stage seem set for a night of spooky revelry. Till one of the children, a 13-year-old girl known for telling lies, makes a bid to show off to the acclaimed author and announces that she saw a murder once. She’s laughed off and the party continues until the child’s body is found, drowned in the bucket all the children used earlier for apple bobbing.
The movie version changes the setting and the murder, moving from an English village to Venice. Instead of the murder of Joyce Reynolds, A Haunting in Venice challenges Poirot to investigate a murder at the séance, and along the way forces him to question his philosophies and sanity.
Mathew Prichard, the film’s producer and Christie’s only grandson, has said in an interview that the upcoming film is a departure for the franchise, and is taking a risky approach “to bring in a different audience and provide surprises and delight”.
But one thing remains common. Poirot’s telling comment to Oliver. “You and I have a principle in common. We do not approve of murder.”
The story seems simple but is surprisingly unnerving, perhaps because it’s one of the few Christie mysteries that features the death of a child. Christie’s 70th published mystery-based work has a darker, more ominous mood than some of her most popular titles, and is disturbing.
Hallowe’en Party was first serialised in a weekly magazine in seven abridged instalments in November-December 1969, and then published in the United Kingdom by the Collins Crime Club and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company.
However, reviewers weren’t very kind. English crime writer and critic Robert Barnard wrote: “Bobbing for apples turns serious when a ghastly child is extinguished in the bucket. The plot [is] not too bad, but the telling is very poor: [littered] with loose ends, unrealised characters, and maintains only a marginal hold on the reader’s interest. Much of it reads as if spoken into a tape recorder and never read through afterwards.”
Robert Weaver wrote in the Toronto Daily Star, “Hallowe’en Party...is a disappointment, but with all her accomplishments Miss Christie can be forgiven some disappointments... Poirot seems weary and so does the book.”
But in recent times, the novel has gained immensely in popularity, with Poirot’s relentless search for the truth - who killed the girl and what did she see that made her a target – driving readers to turn pages in search of the denouement.
“You want beauty,” Poirot says at one point. “Beauty at any price. For me, it is truth I want. Always truth.”
Mark Aldridge, academic and an Agatha Christie historian, says Hallowe’en Party is one of his favourite Poirot novels. “I love how Poirot is coming to terms with a different world, post-war. The crime at the centre of the story is an unusually vicious one. It also has one of my favourite clues in all the Agatha Christie books, but I won’t ruin it by saying what it is! It’s a dark, disturbing, and fascinating novel.”
Hallowe’en Party had a range of characters: apart from Poirot and Oliver, the people on the pages included Judith Butler and her sprite-like daughter Miranda, the enigmatic Rowena Drake; Joyce Reynolds, the first victim and her brother, Leopold Reynolds; the ethereally beautiful landscape architect Michael Garfield; and investigating officer Timothy Raglan and the retired Superintendent Spence.
Aldridge says he really likes the characters, including the mystery writer Ariadne Oliver, who in the original novel repeats many of Christie’s own concerns, especially about a perceived rise in violent crime. “There are also some great younger characters, who are very much in tune with the ‘real world’ and offer a glimpse of that. It’s all a stark reminder that Christie’s writing wasn’t ‘cosy’,” he says.
A Haunting in Venice brings in a few new characters: Riccardo Scamarcio as Vitale Portfoglio, Ali Khan and Emma Laird as Nicholas and Desdemona Holland, Jamie Dornan as Dr Leslie Ferrier (a doctor instead of the solicitor’s clerk he was in the book), Kyle Allen as Maxime Gerard, and Michelle Yeoh as – surprise - Joyce Reynolds, who’s a self-proclaimed psychic in the film version instead of the girl who’s murdered.
As with his earlier Christie films, Branagh has assembled a more inclusive cast than has been typical for adaptations. In Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, he updated the source material, keen to tackle sections that displayed racism, xenophobia and colonialism. He has doubled down on these efforts with Hallowe’en Party, a fact backed by the varied cast.
Interestingly, shared cinematic universes may be all the rage today, courtesy Marvel, but Christie had a shared literary universe in the 1930s. In 1936, she wrote Cards on the Table, a taut mystery where four of her famous detectives received invites to the same dinner party.
Along with Poirot, Superintendent Battle, the detective from The Seven Dials Mystery, Colonel Race, who appeared in The ABC Murders and Man in the Brown Suit, and Ariadne Oliver, a mystery novel writer head for dinner and drinks at the house of Mr Shaitana, a wealthy man with a fascination for murders and murderers. The oily host invites the four detectives to play bridge with four people who possibly got away with murder. But by the end of the evening, Shaitana is dead and the four must determine who the killer is.
After Branagh’s third outing as Poirot, perhaps he would consider bringing alive on screen the stories of his other detective friends. Could his Poirot translate Christie’s literary universe into a cinematic one? After all, no one wants to miss the chance of seeing A-listers in glamorous locations sizzling up a mysterious plot.
The possibility of creating an Agatha Christie shared universe is not lost on the director. Way back in 2017, he said, “With 66 books and short stories and plays, [you] feel as though there is a world – just like with Dickens, there’s a complete world that she’s created – certain kinds of characters who live in her world – that I think has real possibilities.”
After all, Poirot says in Hallowe’en Party: “There is always a brave new world…but only, you know, for very special people. The lucky ones. The ones who carry the making of that world within themselves.”
Whether or not there’s a shared universe, there are plenty of stories that can make it to the screen in the near future.
“The films are obviously an interpretation of the stories for the modern movie-going audience. The great success of them is that they bring people who might never have thought to pick up one of her books into the world of Agatha Christie,” Aldridge says.
Teja Lele is an independent editor and writes on books, travel and lifestyle.