- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Flipboard
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Tumblr
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
Oscar winner Kenneth Branagh is especially grateful that he got to don Hercule Poirot’s famed mustache once more in A Haunting in Venice.
The previous murder mystery in Branagh’s now three-film series, Death on the Nile, was plagued by misfortune long after filming had concluded. It was not only delayed several times during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was also marred by one of its stars’ sexual misconduct allegations. Ultimately, the film received a quiet theatrical release in February 2022, grossing a respectable $130 million worldwide despite minimal marketing and promotion.
Fortunately, the film still received generally positive reviews, and the performance of Emma Mackey, in particular, was considered a highlight among the star-studded ensemble. So Branagh credits word of mouth, above-average streaming numbers and his long-standing relationship with Disney and 20th Century for A Haunting in Venice’s eventual green light.
“[Death on the Nile’s] theatrical release was challenged for various reasons, but it still did exceptional numbers in the circumstances. And then the streaming performance was really exceptional. So I was very pleased when they came back to us, for sure,” Branagh tells The Hollywood Reporter.
A Haunting in Venice is based on Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, and together with Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and Death on the Nile (2022) screenwriter Michael Green, Branagh moved the location from the English countryside to post-World War II Venice. And instead of a more traditional Halloween party, a now-retired Poirot reluctantly attends a séance that quickly goes awry, making the film more of a supernatural thriller, unlike previous installments.
Oddly enough, Branagh’s previous film, the semi-autobiographical Belfast, which landed him an Oscar for best original screenplay, included a Christmas Day scene in which the mother character (Caitríona Balfe) is given Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party. As much as he hoped for a future stroke of luck, Branagh insists that his primary goal wasn’t to foretell his now-current project. He was just paying tribute to the time his actual mother became a Christie fan herself.
“I said [to props], ‘Well, if we ever got the chance, we would do [Hallowe’en Party]. [My mother] was a big Agatha Christie fan, so why don’t you put it in as an offering to the gods? They can tell us, in the end, if we’ll be allowed to make it,’” Branagh says.
A Haunting in Venice, which debuted its trailer Wednesday at CinemaCon, also reunites Branagh with his Belfast stars Jude Hill and Jamie Dornan, as well as the newly minted Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh, Tina Fey, Kyle Allen, Camille Cottin and Kelly Reilly, among others.
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Branagh also discusses his role in the resurgence of the murder mystery genre on the big screen.
Well, considering that Death on the Nile faced some adversity that was beyond your control, how surprised were you when you learned that Disney and 20th Century wanted to keep your Hercule Poirot movies going?
I’m a realist about the world of film, but what I was hearing, anecdotally, was how much people had enjoyed [Death on the Nile], wherever they saw it and whenever they saw it. My anecdotal sense of the public response was strong. The theatrical release was challenged for various reasons, but it still did exceptional numbers in the circumstances. And then the streaming performance was really exceptional. So all of this was testament to Agatha Christie and to the dynamics and skill of those ensembles, and the audience’s interest in going on these precarious murder vacations, in the hands of a much-loved character.
So I was very pleased when they came back to us, for sure, because we’d enjoyed making them very much. Michael Green, the screenwriter, and I had ideas about where it could go, and so I was grateful, basically. I was particularly grateful to the single determining factor, really, which was the audience. The audience seems to want it, and they seem to be ready for another. So we were happy to try and do one.
You have history with Alan Horn, who is no longer at Disney, but overall, do you credit your long-term relationship with Disney as well?
I got on very, very well with Alan Horn. He has always been somebody who’s been very strong in the creative department and a strong collaborator. I also have had very strong experiences with Disney, with Sean Bailey, Bob Iger, Alan Bergman and now Steve Asbell at 20th [Century], which is in the Disney world. So, yeah, these personal relationships have definitely been a part of this. They’ve taken a keen interest in these films. So I have had good relationships, but Steve Asbell, who runs 20th, has been really critical in flying the flag for these movies. So I feel lucky that I’ve had strong and collaborative allies.
In Belfast, one of the family’s Christmas gifts was Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party. Did you know then that Hallowe’en Party would be the next book you adapted if you ever got to make another Poirot film?
It was an offering to the gods, to be honest. All I knew is that Michael Green and I had talked about [Hallowe’en Party], and he said it was an English country house mystery that could transpose and transplant itself to Venice in a way that would be very, very effective. But at that stage, it was just me and Michael.
The reason Hallowe’en Party appeared in Belfast was because that moment in the life of our family was the moment at which my mother turned into a reader. She just decided this at a certain point in her life, in her 40s. She suddenly got completely hooked on crime procedurals and Agathe Christie, so [the Christmas gift] was a memory of her starting to do that. And when the props department said, “You have her opening a novel on Christmas Day; what do you want it to be?” I said, “Well, if we ever got the chance, we would do [Hallowe’en Party]. She was a big Agatha Christie fan, so why don’t you put it in as an offering to the gods? They can tell us, in the end, if we’ll be allowed to make it.” And I thought, “If we don’t make it, it’s kind of an act of gratitude as well.” But it turns out that Michael was right.
Speaking of Belfast, you’ve also got Buddy (Jude Hill) and Pa (Jamie Dornan) in A Haunting in Venice. Did you pitch them the idea during your lengthy awards season tour?
It actually all came together a little bit after that, but I really did enjoy working with Jude and Jamie. I really enjoyed seeing the rapport build between them. They had the bond of their shared citizenship of that part of the world [Northern Ireland], but I felt that Jamie was something of a mentor to Jude, who is old beyond his years. So it was a very memorable experience for us going through, as you say, that lengthy [awards season] procedure. We should be so lucky to be involved for a long part of it, but it does give you plenty of time with people in odd moments, in different parts of the world, in a corridor here or a waiting station platform there, or whatever it might be. So you get to know people in a different way.
And what I sensed with young Jude is that there’s really a proper and serious actor there. I always knew this about Jamie, but I felt that there was more to go in that relationship. So there’s a chance for both actors to surprise the public in this particular combination of a father-son relationship. It’s also very satisfying to have a relationship with two artists who know each other well. You’re a little further along in the ability to be natural, real and detailed in the interplay, because Agatha Christie’s sleight of hand is to make these characters and these stories feel a little deeper than they are. So you need the acting to be very economic in that way, and you can convey that without trying too hard.
And from a directing point of view, when you have so many new people coming to each of these stories, it makes for an exciting, eventized rehearsal atmosphere. So Jude and Jamie’s rapport and camaraderie was vital. It had a really positive effect on the rest of the cast, because actors can sometimes feel very nervous coming into these films. It almost feels like you’re arriving at a new school where everybody already knows each other, but Jude and Jamie’s generosity — and their clear ease with me — was a really good, helpful sign for the other actors. So I was most grateful that they were involved.
Since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), I’ve wondered if you would ever go back to the horror genre, and based on the Venice trailer, it seems like you’ve done that. Is Venice actually a return to the genre for you?
I would say that we are firmly a supernatural thriller, and the normal rules do not apply. So, as magnificent as Venice is, the film and the story itself is not as Gothic as it might appear, but it’s certainly exotic. It’s certainly mysterious, as is Michael’s other work. And in Agatha Christie’s work, you have the chance for a conversation that subverts the genre, so we certainly are happy, as she was and Michael is, to scare people. I hope we can, and I hope we will. There’s a character in the movie that says, “Scary stories make life less scary,” but they can sure make going to the movies memorable. So I’m very excited that this played at CinemaCon, in that big room for theater owners. It’s the kind of story that tries to create that knot-in-the-stomach sensation and is really such fun to see with a big crowd in a theater. So I’m super happy that we are releasing a story like this in theaters. So, in that sense, it’s a return to embracing the idea of scary stories, be it thrillers, horror or some kind of genre blend. You’ll probably be a better judge of it when you see it than I am, but the goal was to be in the middle of it. Poirot has to face some ghosts across this long, dark night of the soul, that is this entrapment in a haunted palazzo in Venice during a terrible storm, but inside that, we want to enter, entertain, divert, compel and scare.
Much like Christie’s books, you’ve had a different title for each film, but Hollywood being Hollywood, were you ever asked to link the films with a subtitle like A Hercule Poirot Mystery or An Agatha Christie Whodunnit?
Not thus far, no. I haven’t been asked to do that. Agatha Christie, as the world’s best-selling novelist, has a primacy in these regards and a kind of IP that is super strong. So I don’t have any particular strong thoughts about how this kind of thing needs to be tackled. I want people to see the films, and I want people to go to the cinema to see this film and other films. So it’s good to be open about that, but Agatha Christie is a lore unto herself. And thus far, the movies are what they are, and if it evolves in a different way, we’ll cross those particular bridges when we come to them. But so far, I’ve just been left to get on with the titles as they are.
I credit you, Rian Johnson and even Adam Sandler for popularizing the murder mystery genre again. More and more of them keep popping up all over town. Are you proud to have had a hand in this genre’s resurgence?
I’m proud that I’ve had a chance to work on this kind of really intricate storytelling. Those other pictures you mentioned do a fantastic job in different parts of the same genre, but what characterizes them is this real ingenuity. From Agatha Christie and Michael Green, I find that I really enjoy the deftness with which they’re trying to really deliver an entertaining story for the public. It’s something that plays across a broad audience, but really tries to get the maximum value, the maximum squeeze from their parts of the forest. They’re trying to get the maximum impact from an ensemble cast of characters, one of whom will have done it, or maybe multiple people will have done it. They try to keep the audience guessing while giving them enough of what they want, but they also try to genuinely surprise them with incidents and plot, but also emotion. So those things are wonderful things to play with as filmmakers, and when they work, the audiences are delighted to have them. They’re fun and they’re engaging, and the best of them can really keep the brain going as well as the heart. But getting the balance right is a challenge. It’s the art that hides the art. It should look effortless and invisible, so I get a big kick out of the challenge of trying to make it look as easy as Agatha Christie does.
A Haunting in Venice opens in theaters Sept. 15. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day
More from The Hollywood Reporter
Syrian Refugee Sara Mardini on Her Long Swim to Freedom, Netflix’s ‘The Swimmers’ and Her Trial
‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ Star Daniel Kaluuya on Creating Spider-Punk and Catching That Surprise Character
‘Vanderpump Rules’ Star Ariana Madix Reveals First Look at Lifetime Movie Role Amid Scandoval Drama