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Kenneth Branagh Is Making a Cinematic Universe for Adults

The multihyphenate has carved out a rare space with an old-fashioned franchise catered to grown-ups

20th Century Studios/Ringer Illustration

For directors navigating the studio system, it’s not a bad idea to follow the “one for you, one for them” approach to filmmaking: essentially, balancing passion projects alongside the commercial demands of the industry. (James Wan, for instance, parlayed the success of Aquaman to make something as gloriously batshit as Malignant, which changed my life.) That mantra would explain the recent directorial efforts of Sir Kenneth Branagh, who, after helming a (genuinely terrible) adaptation of Artemis Fowl, made Belfast, a coming-of-age drama inspired by his childhood in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Considering Belfast received seven nominations at the 94th Academy Awards, winning Best Original Screenplay, Branagh certainly made the most of his “one for you” opportunity.

Branagh is back in the director’s chair with A Haunting in Venice, his third Agatha Christie adaptation following Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. (A Haunting in Venice is loosely based on Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, shifting from the novel’s original English setting to Italy.) By any measure, another installment of a franchise based on the work of one of the most popular authors of all time qualifies as one for the studio. But those prerequisites don’t account for Branagh’s own commitment to the material: he’s not just the director of these movies, he is Hercule Poirot, ridiculous mustache and all.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Branagh cares about Poirot more than a project as intimate as Belfast, but the Christie adaptations are, for better or for worse, inextricably linked to the multihyphenate’s sensibilities. Whereas Rian Johnson modernized the whodunit with the Knives Out franchise, subverting what audiences have come to expect from murder mysteries, Branagh’s franchise remains resolutely old-fashioned. (Anyone who has made enough Shakespeare movies to have their own listicle clearly loves sticking to tradition.) Poirot will gather the suspects of a murder (or murders) before interrogating them with a comically hammy Belgian accent; backstories for why someone would be compelled to kill the victim (or victims) will come to light; Poirot will use his brilliant powers of deduction to suss out the real culprit (or culprits); the mystery reaches its tidy resolution. It’s like going to an ice cream shop and choosing a scoop of vanilla: It might not blow your mind, but you know exactly what you’re getting.

Really, the biggest knock against Branagh’s adaptations has been the absolutely cursed collection of actors along for the ride. Johnny Depp signed on to Murder on the Orient Express four months after Amber Heard was granted a temporary restraining order against him, citing verbal and physical abuse. (Depp’s erratic behavior reportedly affected production until Branagh confronted the actor about it.) There were far more problems plaguing Death on the Nile: As if shifting the release date six (!) times due to the pandemic weren’t bad enough, the movie also had to contend with accounts of sexual abuse by Armie Hammer, anti-vax sentiments expressed by Letitia Wright and Russell Brand, and backlash faced by Gal Gadot for her comments regarding the ongoing violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Frankly, there was enough controversy … to fill the Nile!

Death on the Nile flopping at the box office seemed to resign the franchise to an unceremonious end while also continuing a worrying trend of 20th Century Studios titles floundering under Disney’s stewardship. In that respect, A Haunting in Venice comes as a bit of a surprise—though not an unwelcome one. Set 10 years after the events of Death on the Nile, in which Poirot lost his dear friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), the famous sleuth has since retired in Venice—Poirot is so distraught over the atrocities he’s witnessed and the losses he’s suffered that he’d rather hide away from the world. (The detective is accompanied by an Italian bodyguard who is so devoted to keeping people out of Poirot’s space that he’ll straight up toss them into the canal; now that’s committing to the bit.) Poirot’s self-imposed exile is interrupted by an old acquaintance, the mystery author Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), who invites him to a séance at a spooky palazzo on Allhallows Eve. The whole thing is orchestrated by Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a renowned medium who claims she’ll be able to communicate with the owner’s deceased daughter; Ariadne, meanwhile, is hoping to expose Joyce as a fraud and wants Poirot’s help to do it. As fate would have it, someone is murdered over the course of the evening, and it’s once again up to Poirot to find the culprit.

Unlike Branagh’s previous Christie adaptations, which at times literally played it by the book, A Haunting in Venice leans into the possibility that something supernatural is afoot. Poirot witnesses apparent specters roaming the palazzo halls and is on the receiving end of some honest-to-god jump scares. (There’s also the recurring sound of children giggling—the palazzo has a morbid history of orphans who were left to die during the plague—which is the surest way to freak anyone out.) Branagh wants A Haunting in Venice to have the trappings of a horror movie, and the disorienting state of affairs allows the director to make ample use of his beloved Dutch angles. The palazzo itself is perhaps the greatest asset of all: Cavernous and foreboding in equal measure, it’s the last place you’d want to be stuck during a stormy night.

For anyone who’s a horror aficionado, however, A Haunting in Venice won’t qualify as remotely scary: Like at any good Halloween party, the supernatural flourishes are only for show. (Given how closely these Christie adaptations follow the tried-and-true whodunit formula, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a more rational explanation is eventually revealed.) Of course, none of A Haunting in Venice’s attempts at misdirection should deter the underserved target audience for these films: adults.

It’s not exactly breaking news that Hollywood has gone all in on superhero franchises over the past 15 years. While the industry’s superhero obsession is a boon for comic book fans, it can leave other moviegoers feeling like they’ve been hung out to dry. This is somewhat by design: When people between the ages of 18 and 34 remain the likeliest to go to theaters, studios will largely focus on making movies that appeal to that demographic. (For what it’s worth, I also fall into that age bracket, though my tastes are more, uh, dad-core.) Unsurprisingly, there isn’t as much generational overlap with Branagh’s Christie adaptations: Of the moviegoers who saw Death on the Nile on opening weekend, nearly 50 percent were over the age of 35. I can count on one hand the number of films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe that my parents have seen; they will be seated every time Branagh sports that goofy mustache because [extremely Belgian voice] zere has been anozher merder.

The fact that Branagh’s franchise goes against the grain of the current theatrical landscape doesn’t eliminate the shortcomings of these movies; namely, the filmmaker’s deference to the source material leaves little room to experiment outside of—and this is somehow not a joke—a mustache origin story. (A Haunting in Venice is easily the best of Branagh’s adaptations in part because it’s willing to embrace new, spooky territory.) But these movies are still worth celebrating when there are so few contemporaries making their way to theaters. Even Knives Out has been relegated to streaming despite obvious signs that people want to experience the franchise on the big screen.

Regardless of how A Haunting in Venice performs at the box office, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which major studios continue green-lighting more films with such old-school sensibilities. Those of us clamoring for more tentpoles catered to adults—movies driven by intriguing characters, sharp writing, and sumptuous production design rather than visual effects or endless cinematic universe tie-ins—will have to take what we can get. And if that means being subjected to an Oscar-winning thespian twirling a giant prosthetic mustache while speaking in the most over-the-top Belgian accent you could ever dream of, well, at least Halloween is right around the corner.