The obvious move for director/star Kenneth Branagh and writer Michael Green would be to follow their Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile with Evil Under the Sun – though this breaks from the remake mode of their earlier Agatha Christie/Hercule Poirot pix and lights on a lesser-known novel (Hallowe’en Party) which it proceeds to ditch almost completely in favour of a crossbreed of Poirot-Christie detection with Conjuring-type living memory period paranormalism. It all turns out to be down to hallucinogenic poison honey, which is a splendidly bizarre Golden Age of Detection touch for something otherwise rather drab and dour, picking up from a thread in the earlier films – and the BBC TV ABC Murders with John Malkovich under the moustache – highlighting the toll all this 20th century history and endless high society murders have taken on the usually indomitable sleuth.
It’s 1947 and Poirot (Branagh) – tache regrown and love interest written out since the end of the last film – is in gloomy Venetian retirement, with a bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio) to keep away petitioners who want their cases solved. He’s tracked down by Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), the Christie stand-in mystery writer, and dragooned into attending a séance at the huge old palazzo of opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), where medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) promises to manifest the spirit of Rowena’s dead daughter. Of course, the house is full of folk who either have a desperate interest in the séance being genuine or an equally desperate interest for it not to be so that old case – an apparent suicide – isn’t raked over again. The séance takes place in a storm, the medium is tossed off a balcony to be impaled on a spike, and Poirot starts seeing things – including some effective James Wan jump scares which hark back to Branagh’s oddest, most overlooked directorial credit, the barking loopy supernatural private eye melodrama Dead Again.
Branagh as director is still overshadowed by the people he evokes so often – Olivier, Welles (who played Poirot on the wireless), those 70s Christies. As in Dead Again, there’s a smidge of Dario Argento in this one, not to mention Don’t Look Now – but Branagh keeps going back to PTSD, even in his Shakespeare films plus stuff like Thor and Belfast, and Jamie Dornan is in residence as a quivering doctor who can barely function thanks to What He Saw in the War while Belfast star Jude Hill is a speccy kid who reads Edgar Allan Poe. We get other suspects – a secretary (Camille Cottin), gypsy war orphans (Emma Laird, Ali Khan), a gold-digging chef (Kyle Allen) – and someone gets to be the second victim in a locked-room scenario … but the actual culprit is identifiable because of that creaky old convention that anyone in a house full of people with motives to kill who has no apparent reason to want anyone dead is liable to be harbouring secrets … in this case, compounding near-accidental murder with more calculated killings.
I’m not sure if I buy this case pushing Poirot to get his groove back, but it’s kind of sweet at the end when Branagh gets out of his gloom – the glumness of his detective has been a real drag on the series – and sparkles a bit in Peter Ustinov style as he rattles off a solution to his next case (with no apparent evidence to go on, but never mind). As before, Green and Branagh feel a need to add some action into the Christie formula – bodies are discovered, suspects are grilled, a mystery is explained – and so there’s a bit where a hooded figure tries to drown Poirot in a barrel of water where he is impishly bobbing for apples (this is the murder method from the book, where Joyce was a schoolgirl). Maybe it’s time to drop the genius detective who’s a hollow neurotic shell of a man theme, which has been overworked lately. NB: Hallowe’en Party was adapted, of course, as an episode of the David Suchet Poirot series.