Oliver and Company: How Ariadne Oliver Makes A Haunting in Venice Work

Movies Features Kenneth Branagh
Oliver and Company: How Ariadne Oliver Makes A Haunting in Venice Work

I have seen Tina Fey roll her milky white eyeballs at a pompous gasbag of a man more times than I can count. Her expressions of annoyance come from the place of a writer whose work has been interrupted or whose time has been wasted by, more often than not, male ego. There were times across 30 Rock’s seven seasons where Liz Lemon got in her own way, certainly, but the looming presence over her sanity was always some guy in a suit or ketchup-smeared t-shirt. Her “muppet face” would exaggerate her features and irritation would spread across her expression like a crumbling mountain eaten up by the pouring rubble. She just wants to get her work done. Is that so hard to ask? Behind the accentuated sleeplessness in her eyes is the desperate wish to finish that draft. (I relate!)

What was always fun about watching Fey’s performance as the beleaguered TGS with Tracy Jordan head writer was discerning, like on a reality show, which parts of her performance were true, taken from life, and transcendent of the fictional parameters of the faux-SNL writers room. Her huffs and puffs and “Shut it down!”s coalesced into a familiar persona that often needled at the question of to what degree Fey was playing a version of herself. Was her performance truer when it got more absurd, or was the “real” Fey found in the subtler moments, like waking up with food on her face?

At any rate, Tina Fey knows how to play an avatar of a real person—a real writer, no less—contouring the performance with zaniness and surprise for a character who needs exaggeration and excess to work. And her ability to embody the frustrations of a (woman) writer in the face of (male) vanity make her a surprising MVP as crime author Ariadne Oliver in Kenneth Branagh’s Agatha Christie murder-mystery A Haunting in Venice, based (very liberally!) on her 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party

Ariadne Oliver—who made her first appearance in 1932, in the short story “The Case of the Discontented Soldier,” which ran in Cosmopolitan—was, for Christie, her own avatar and little pawn of self-insertion into her books. In Cards on the Table, the novel where Oliver first meets Hercule Poirot, she is described as “an agreeable woman of middle age, handsome in a rather untidy fashion, with fine eyes, substantial shoulders, and a large quantity of rebellious gray hair with which she was continually experimenting.” Oliver, like Christie, loves apples and working in the tub, and would appear in seven novels with Hercule Poirot and one on her own, The Pale Horse. She is found frequently saying things like, “Now, if a woman were in charge at Scotland Yard!”

Oliver was Christie’s own little girlboss. 

But as a proxy for the author, Ariadne Oliver allowed Christie to convey her own frustrations as a writer, the mistakes she made in previous books (hidden like Easter eggs throughout her appearances with Poirot) and, in particular, the dissonance she felt between the fame she had accrued and the character to which it kind of belonged. Oliver, in both the books and Branagh’s film, is the creator of a Finnish detective called Sven Hjerson. Hjerson is nearly more famous than Oliver, and in A Haunting in Venice, the thinness of the self-parody reveals itself as text, with Fey’s Oliver and Branagh’s Poirot admitting that her writing a rice-paper slim variation of the Belgian detective is what launched both of their careers.

While Ariadne Oliver’s presence in the books was frequently for comic relief, Christie’s (though she denied the claims of the character being an avatar) ability to use the character to satirize detective fiction itself indicated her prowess as a proto-postmodern writer. She is frequently elbowing Poirot in the metaphorical stomach, tartly saying, “Not symmetrical enough for you?” in Cards on the Table. Oliver describes her books, and their flaws, while on the case, and often notes the preposterousness of a given scenario. 

Yet Oliver’s role in A Haunting in Venice is a fairly unique one, not merely a placeholder for comic relief in Fey’s sardonic line readings, but a way of building out the film’s auto-mythology of Branagh as Hercule Poirot. Venice seems to be a part of something larger, which was never really the case with the books, nor the 1970s ensemble spectacles that the star/director is paying homage to. If Branagh has finally found the perfect calibration of the kind of movie he wants to make and the kind of movie he wants to emulate, it’s due in no small part to having Branagh’s Poirot and Fey’s Oliver together in the same film. 

Branagh, once described as an Orson Welles in the making, has long been at a place in his career where he wants to be considered not only an actor or a director, but an acteur and an auteur. With Venice’s canted angles, screams of the past and inky black shadows (and Branagh’s big, craze-making performance), the former Shakespearean wunderkind is making the case to be the ultimate author. Beside him is a version of Christie herself, wanting, with a few flops in her recent output, to escape from being tethered to Sven Hjerson, and thus Poirot. 

In A Haunting in Venice, their friendship has bleeding stains of combativeness, an accurate translation of their literary dynamic but, given the tonal direction, a little more acrid in air. Poirot is certain beyond reproach of his power and knowledge; he feels a bit like the Branagh who adapted the complete text of Hamlet on 70mm, and even had some theaters project the previous Poirot outing, Death on the Nile, in the format. But it’s Oliver who must bring him, paradoxically, back to earth and make him realize the things that are “bigger than him,” as she says. She’s a writer, too aware of the things that are bigger than her, that dwarf the living. A character once meant as a winking self-parody can transcend her self-insertive purpose: Poirot can be tamer of death; Oliver can let Death free.

It’s author vs. author, or author vs. auteur, with Poirot, stubbornly of the rational, facing the fantastic and supernatural, and the psychic death and pain that haunts his every step. 

The release of these new Agatha Christie movies comes as James Prichard, CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd and great-grandson of the crime maestra, allows the estate’s IP to continually expand beyond the confines of the cozy Masterpiece Mystery block one would watch with their mother. Envisioning Christie’s work for a new era, with BBC becoming the home of the television adaptation after Poirot and Marple rights were caught up at ITV until 2013, Prichard seemed to spearhead a return to the nastiness frequently inherent in Christie’s work. Hence the scathing misanthropy in the Sarah Phelps-penned adaptations of And Then There Were None (2015) and, most recently, an Oliver-absent version of The Pale Horse (2020). Now the torch has passed to Branagh, who has only just learned that, per Oliver (and thus Christie herself), a single man cannot contend with life and death by himself.

Despite Branagh’s self-serious performance and eagerness to turn Poirot and Christie into brutish metaphors for a kind of national and generational trauma in the wake of World War II, there Fey is, furrowing her brow, delivering her lines at a steady clip, and making sure her forked tongue and wit hook into the movie’s self-serving streak. A Haunting in Venice is great precisely because that dose of Ariadne Oliver is enough to recalibrate it. One of those ghostly voices in the hall is surely saying, “It OK. Don’t be cry.”

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