It's billed as an Agatha Christie movie, but Christie fans may be the last people who'll respond to "A Haunting in Venice."
Kenneth Branagh's third director/star outing as detective Hercule Poirot is supposedly based on Christie's "Hallowe'en Party," but its setting, time period, murders and characters differ from the book. And although it does include Poirot buddy Ariadne Oliver — whom Christie conceived as a bumbling, comic version of herself — she's been overhauled, with Tina Fey playing her as a quick-talking, mid-Atlantic Rosalind Russell type.
All of that could be fine — and it was wise to change the title — but the new mystery created by screenwriter Michael Green is not as tricky or involving as Christie's original tale.
Poirot, seemingly retired, is growing squashes (that is a Christie detail) in Venice when Oliver pulls him into a seance where a former opera singer (Kelly Reilly) seeks answers about the death of her daughter. Suspicious types include the medium conducting the seance (Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh), the dead woman's fiancé, a grieving doctor and the doctor's son (Jude Hill, who played Branagh's child stand-in in his "Belfast").
The Venetian setting is legitimately haunting, echoing the classic "Don't Look Now" in its emphasis on spooky, shadowy corners. Christie set the story in the '60s but Branagh has moved it two decades earlier. That makes Poirot's age fit better with Branagh's "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Death on the Nile" (Christie kept Poirot roughly the same age for 50 years) and allows him to have fun with midcentury movie conventions, including Fey's character, who might have wandered in from "His Girl Friday," and Hill's, who is one of those remarkably self-possessed child-adults that '40s movies loved.
Branagh also continues to explore the psyche of Poirot, something that never particularly interested Christie but that the director/star began in "Death on the Nile," where we learned about World War I trauma that stunted the sleuth's emotional growth. Connecting with a boy who reminds him of himself in "Haunting," Poirot learns some truths that could serve him well if Branagh makes more of these.
If he's going to do that, though, he will need decent mysteries. The one Green concocts in "Haunting" presents us with a victim who it's tough to care about since she's dead before the movie starts, a mystery we can't solve because none of the clues is revealed to us and a solution that doesn't make sense.
I enjoyed hanging out with Poirot and even with this rejiggered version of Oliver. It's fun to tour Venice. It was a smart, elegant decision to set all of "Haunting" on one day (and mostly in one house). And, if the plan was to revamp a Christie story, it was probably wise to go with "Hallowe'en," which is not one of her best loved novels.
But the ragged story that replaces it mostly reminds us that nobody could cook up a mystery like Christie did — and probably no one ever will again.
'A Haunting in Venice'
** out of 4 stars
Rated: PG-13 for violence.
Where: In theaters Friday.