What does a consummate Shakespeare-trained actor and director do after Shakespeare? There is no true “after Shakespeare,” of course, even allowing for the trend cycles of popular filmmaking. The playwright’s work endures, and movie adaptations will continue even if not always at the same clip as, say, the 1990s, when Kenneth Branagh was the English-speaking world’s foremost cinematic Shakespeare steward, plus heir to Olivier, regular Oscar-nominee, handsome devil, all that rot. But after adapting (and playing major roles in) Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost and As You Like It, perhaps Shakespeare feels to Branagh like a mountain already scaled (or maybe it’s just a bit more of a wait before he’s old enough to play King Lear; after all, he already played Shakespeare himself in the little-seen All Is True).
In any event, Branagh deemed himself fit for the barbarous caves of Hollywood franchise work with Thor, only the fourth entry in the then-nascent Marvel Cinematic Universe. From there, he attempted to reboot Jack Ryan, returned to Disney for their live-action Cinderella and an ill-fated YA adaptation, and dabbled in more personal projects. He even won a screenplay Oscar for his semi-autobiographical drama Belfast. From this trajectory, it’s possible to trace out a familiar story arc of big-budget triumph chased by acclaimed return to smaller-scale successes with a bit more soul. This narrative is also made somewhat irrelevant by Belfast being, in the parlance of the region, a bit shite.
Yet Branagh’s Disney career doesn’t make the case for him feeling at home in a plastickier magic kingdom, either; his YA adventure Artemis Fowl is gobsmackingly awful, a movie that appears afflicted with some sort of dark enchantment of inertia, Hell via a would-be franchise-starter. In the midst of all this three-for-them-one-for-me confusion, however, Branagh has found his calling, a peculiar mix of big-budget franchising and faux-prestige: Making well-appointed, star-studded adaptations of Agatha Christie stories, starring Branagh himself as the elaborately mustachioed and accented detective Hercule Poirot. Did it matter that, as the annoying people say on social media, no one asked for this? It did not! The snarkier audiences were scarcely done hooting at Gal Gadot’s (honestly kind of innocuous) delivery-boast of “enough champagne… to fill the Nile!” in last year’s pandemic-delayed Death on the Nile when Fox unveiled a teaser for A Haunting in Venice, the third Poirot adventure, reskinned as a spooky haunted-house movie for fall. It’s playing in theaters nationwide and eyes will continue to roll.
And yet: In this old-fashioned mystery series, Branagh has found a calling – hoots be damned, or maybe just part of the ambience. Across three films, the formula remains largely unchanged: Poirot, already renowned as a master detective, finds himself in the midst of a murder, with a particularly prominent actor playing the victim and a large ensemble of mixed-use celebrities playing the various suspects. Poirot strolls officiously into the proceedings, makes his polite-yet-firm pronouncements, conducts interviews, fussily measures his breakfast eggs at some point and solves the case, which typically implicates multiple people (for various crimes and slights, if not necessarily always the murder at hand).
These glorified drawing-room cases allow Branagh to do what he does best, or at least what he likes best to do: Ham it up in front of the camera, and ham it up through the camera. Within the confines of the Orient Express, a luxury boat on the Nile or a supposedly haunted building in Venice, Branagh’s camera shoots Poirot and various suspects from overhead and underfoot, through windowpanes, in close-up and in cast-gathering wide shots, sometimes all within a few minutes. Venice, taking place in a taller structure than its predecessors, has even more headroom to position and tilt the camera at odd angles.
This frenzied showiness has been a Branagh trademark for decades at this point, but the interior-based Poirot movies (which, especially in Death on the Nile, have some less-than-convincing non-location outdoor shots; Venice is better in this regard), with their sprawling casts, make especially ostentatious use of these techniques. Venice, with its intimations of ghosts and various other unsettled hauntings, ratchets Branagh’s style up even further. The story doesn’t unfold with quite the same leisurely pace as Death on the Nile, which finds time for a Poirot war flashback and mustache origin story: Venice smushes Branagh’s wilder vantage points together in closer proximity, and next to a canal-roiling thunderstorm besides. Branagh himself holds the center of the storm with a kind of melancholic pomposity, something his new de facto sidekick Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey, playing a recurring character from the books) kids him over repeatedly.
She won’t be alone. It’s easy enough to knock these movies, especially the way Branagh presides over them from both sides of the camera, never quite ceding the spotlight no matter how many A-and-B-listers he’s recruited for the international ham leagues. (Fey, Jamie Dornan and Michelle Yeoh are a smaller crew of stars than before; the first two films collectively employed Gal Gadot, Annette Bening, comic duo French & Saunders, Russell Brand, Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Letitia Wright, Penélope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Leslie Odom Jr., Willem Dafoe and, of course, Dame Judi Dench.) You could even deride his stylizations as a clumsy attempt to jazz up old material – with emphasis on old. There’s already an ongoing and genuinely modern take on the Christie formula through Rian Johnson’s Knives Out series, with Daniel Craig in the Poirot role and such an even-more-impressive, less-canceled cast of celebs that fan-casting the next movie has become a popular internet parlor game. No one much cares to do this for the Poirots. (Although, seriously, how has Nicole Kidman not gotten in here yet? Kenneth: Call her, and then call Milla Jovovich.) The period-set series is squarer, less exciting and, no, not written through with the same mischievous cleverness as the Knives Out pictures. Branagh is reviving and tweaking Christie for Disney, not riffing on her legacy and mixing it with contemporary satire. His version is reverential and, like a lot of reverence, a little stiff.
Why, then, are Branagh’s Poirot movies so satisfying? Why are there already three of them? Why did the gentleman seated next to me at a healthily attended public preview screening of A Haunting in Venice literally rub his hands together with glee when seemingly supernatural trappings appeared to emerge? Subliminally, maybe it has to do with Branagh’s Shakespeare experience: Though the human-condition truths are less profound, these are recognizable tales, obviously attractive to talented actors, penned in a specific kind of language, albeit in a cozier idiom than the Bard. In practice, though, these movies harken back to the Old Hollywood drunkenness of Dead Again, Branagh’s sophomore-feature follow-up to Henry V. That 1991 film is more of a self-consciously Hitchcockian pastiche of noir and romance, bolder and more brazen in its ridiculousness than the Poirot mysteries. It’s also one of Branagh’s grand cinematic gestures that doesn’t feel strained; Branagh, then a next-gen cock of the walk, is evidently confident in his crowd-pleasing abilities.
That carries over to a more po-faced Poirot. A Haunting in Venice, with all its talk of flim-flam and potential deception involved with a séance Poirot is invited to debunk, has a particular affection for the hamfisted craft of gimcrackery, even as its hero steadfastly attempts to resist it. All three of Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot mysteries mix the stately and the garish – increasingly as the series goes on. Shooting the first two on 70mm celluloid (and doing a credible imitation job for the third), Branagh casts rich shadows throughout his lush interiors, and uses sharply contrasted lighting to showcase his stars’ faces. Combined with his fondness for Dutch angles, his compositions are by turns painterly and shameless. The mood of the films has a similar duality; at times, they appear to aspire to a kind of older-world elegance, only to undercut that fetishization of the past with Poirot’s world-war-weariness. Those feelings don’t necessarily linger once the case is solved, but in the moment, the films attain a kind of semi-tacky grandeur; they’re a worn easy chair in the middle of an expensive, tourist-y museum. It’s higher-brow stuff than most multiplex sequels, and maybe a touch lower-brow than it appears – the work, in other words, of a talented egotist uncertain of whether he’s elevating the material or debasing himself (which may be why Venice, only the third film in the series, has Poirot agonizing over whether to get back into the murder-solving game). That the series carries these silly tensions at all makes it less of a pure theme-park experience than most of Disney’s big-ticket franchises. So many filmmakers with long-past heydays have struggled with how to navigate their middle age and beyond, after their specialty areas have been left behind. Branagh, through Poirot, has sleuthed it out.
Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.