Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the film A Haunting in Venice.
Can Hercule Poirot ever reconcile his little gray cells and ordered, rational world with the supernatural to form a cohesive worldview? Such is the question tackled by A Haunting in Venice, loosely based on Agatha Christie’s novel Hallowe’en Party. Back for his third turn as Christie’s famed Belgian detective, Kenneth Branagh as Poirot dives into the realm of the supernatural after being shanghaied into attending a séance on All Hallow’s Eve by his author friend, Ariadne Oliver. Branagh, also the film’s director, combines varied and dizzying camera angles and moody lighting with glamorous but deteriorating set pieces to underscore the film’s unsettling preoccupation with death and decay.
Hauntings of various kinds dominate this installment. On a broad scale, we see 1947 Europe haunted by the two world wars that just finished ravaging the globe, and the opening song selection—“When the Lights Go On Again,” a staple of post-World War II radio—suggests the continent’s limping recovery. Meanwhile, a more local haunting revolves around the Venetian mansion, or palazzo, that Poirot investigates, which is supposedly haunted—if not by literal ghosts, then at least by its tragic past. Finally, Ariadne’s remark that Venice is a fitting choice for Poirot’s retirement because its deterioration parallels his languishing mind prepares the viewer for the third and most personal haunting: that of Poirot himself.
Although Poirot’s haunting takes up the least amount of screen time, it nevertheless forms the film’s backbone. Poirot is more world-weary and jaded than ever, as evidenced by a newfound atheism. Various ghosts of his past sparked his spiritual crisis: his traumatic memories as a soldier in World War I, the loss of his love, Katherine, and the death of his friend, Bouc, in the previous installment. Thus, more interesting than the mystery itself is how it affects Poirot’s newfound atheism. Although the precise nature of Poirot’s abandoned faith is unclear, in a confrontation with the medium, Joyce Reynolds, over her supposed powers and the soul’s endurance after death, he admits he wishes to see that lost faith restored:
Please understand, madam, I would welcome with open arms any honest sign of devil, or demon, or ghost. For if there is a ghost, there is a soul. If there is a soul, there is a God who made it. And if we have God, then we have everything. Meaning, order, justice. But I have seen too much of the world. Countless crimes, two wars, the bitter evil of human indifference. And I conclude: No. No God. No ghost.
Having set up the specter of the problem of evil as Poirot’s existential struggle, the film proceeds to examine it by focusing on the corruption of innocence. Particularly, it focuses on Edenic imagery, as epitomized by a striking close-up of a cuckoo clock featuring a miniature Adam and Eve complete with the apple and snake. Meanwhile, the arrival of Ariadne, Poirot’s supposed old friend, is heralded by an apple, and we later discover why: in a case of financial need corrupting friendship, she wants to stump Poirot with the séance and exploit the incident to write a lucrative new book.
Driving home the theme of the destruction of innocence is the relationship between Rowena Drake and her daughter, Alicia, easily the film’s purest character. In a fit of anger at Alicia for falling in love with a man whom Rowena considered unsuitable, Rowena destroyed the lush garden she and Alicia planted and tended together. The location of the garden itself in the supposedly haunted palazzo reinforces the loss of youthful innocence, as the palazzo’s lore echoes the theme. The legend goes that during the plague, the doctors and nurses in charge of the palazzo (then an orphanage) locked the children away to starve, and the children’s ghosts now linger, killing the home’s inhabitants for company and leaving the claw marks of their “vendetta” on their victims’ bodies.
Perhaps the most horrifying moment in this horror-saturated film comes when Poirot finds the children’s tiny skeletons in the palazzo’s basement and discovers the truth of the legend. The innocence of the film’s victims—both Alicia Drake and the children—stands in stark contrast to its authority figures, whose bad behavior devastates the younger generation: the doctors and nurses who murdered the children; the mother who kills her own daughter; and, we can safely assume, even without an explicit mention of the topic, the powers who began the world wars that shattered an entire generation of men, including Poirot.
Poirot’s proximity to the land of the dead reveals itself through his conversations with the two characters who meet their ends during the film’s runtime: the medium, Joyce, and the PTSD-riddled Dr. Farrier. Even before their demise, death dogs the steps of these characters. In their last conversations with Poirot, both identify themselves with him. Dr. Ferrier, haunted by what he saw at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, whispers to Poirot, “You and me, we’re the same. Wherever we go, death follows.” Joyce, meanwhile, informs Poirot that despite his disdain for her profession, the differences are not as great as he believes: they both bring comfort to the living with the secrets of the dead. Significantly, however, Joyce also shows Poirot the road back to the living in her comment that he needs to “lighten up” and learn a lesson from the innocence of children.
Joyce’s suggestion implies the virtue of child-like innocence, which, combined with Poirot’s admitted loss of faith, puts the viewer in mind of Matthew 18:3: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” But the film immediately undercuts its own message: when Poirot takes Joyce’s advice and goes bobbing for apples, a cloaked figure promptly attacks and almost drowns him in the basin. Symbolically, these apples serve as an ominous reminder of the film’s previous reliance on corrupting Edenic imagery. As this scene demonstrates, although the film locates in child-like innocence the seed of its answer to the world’s brokenness and cynicism, it also features that same innocence being constantly preyed upon and destroyed by life’s cruelties.
The film thus recognizes the insufficiency of child-like innocence to answer its presentation of the problem of evil, particularly the psychological damage inflicted upon its characters. It clearly acknowledges a realm of damage beyond merely human capacities to heal. As Dr. Ferrier’s precocious son, Leopold, perceptively notes of his father’s diagnosis of “battle fatigue”: “He’s not tired. He’s broken.” These invisible wounds often translate into spiritual brokenness as well, as Poirot himself demonstrates with his lost faith.
The film hints at the blossoming of the seed of childlike innocence as its response to these issues with its depiction of the spiritual world and the afterlife, even despite its unclear theological grounding. The mere existence of ghosts who haunt the living world is unbiblical; in fact, the only slight reference to the subject comes during the exceptional, strange incident relayed in 1 Samuel 28:7-20, when the witch of Endor conjures the prophet Samuel’s ghost for King Saul, an act clearly forbidden by Deuteronomy’s proscription against any attempt to inquire of the dead. Further, the film includes no clear mention of heaven or hell as one of the soul’s options for its eternal destination, and it suggests a certain amount of unbiblical vigilantism, as the ghosts of murder victims are apparently left to their own devices to exact revenge for themselves. Nevertheless, the film embraces a clear moral compass: victims receive justice and murderers are punished.
Most significantly, it is refreshingly open to the existence of the supernatural and thus rejects the scientific materialism pervading much of today’s culture. For instance, Poirot quickly exposes Joyce as a fraud, but he admits he cannot solve all of her tricks. Unexplainable events, such as the appearance of Alicia’s real voice in the séance, suggest that Joyce is toying with supernatural realities beyond her control in a variety of ways.
Additionally, although most of Poirot’s ghostly sightings are chalked up to a hallucinogenic in his drink, the film leaves unresolved a number of elements, such as a mysteriously falling teacup from a table edge that points him to an essential clue, and Leopold’s claim to Poirot that he has also heard the children, who told him Joyce is a fraud. All these elements combined, but especially these last two (given the involvement of the ghostly children), teach Poirot the limits of his overreliance on rationality, and beckon him to the realm of faith, where the bud of innocence can burst forth in full bloom. The film’s subtle, almost imperceptible conclusion is that the seed of childlike innocence must mature into the flower of childlike faith to stand against the onslaught of the problem of evil.
By the film’s close, these unresolved elements have shaken Poirot’s atheistic convictions and pushed him toward a childlike faith, for as Ariadne remarks to him, he now has the “look of a believer.” She insists, “You saw something. You saw. You know.” His reply sums up his new outlook: “I know only that we cannot hide from our ghosts, whether they are real or not. We must make peace with them.” This remark dodges the nature of his newfound belief, as it could imply a belief in simply the need to confront mere psychological ghosts rather than offer up actual spiritual scars to Christ, who alone can heal them. Nevertheless, he then proceeds to throw himself into his work again, an obvious sign he has restored his childlike faith in the workings of rationality and justice, and with them, a transcendent lawgiver.
Other than the glimpses Poirot has caught of the supernatural, however, the reason for this renewal of his faith is unclear: the film contains precious few demonstrations of human embodiment of any virtue, particularly friendship or love, to which Poirot can cling personally. Indeed, Ariadne viciously agrees with Poirot that he has no friends and informs him that he has only admirers instead, and the film does nothing to disabuse us of this notion.
In the end, Poirot’s happiness is implied to be found only in his work. But it is work that, by employing his little gray cells, allows him to participate in turning the cogs in the wheel of justice—which, as Poirot says, can only come from a divine judge. Joyce tells the spirits she is listening, but in embracing childlike faith, Poirot takes the next step: he strikes out to knock on the door of truth, and we know that those who seek, find.
Having plunged viewers into death through the dark hallways of the haunted house, the film’s conclusion brings us back into the light of life, with Poirot renewing his childlike faith. The return of “When the Lights Come On Again,” now gloriously re-contextualized, underscores this shift as the camera pans over Venice and Poirot sinks his teeth into a new case with relish. But in the film’s close—a conversation with a new client—he deliberately shoves a teetering teacup back onto the center of his table, suggesting his firm preference for containing matters in the sphere of reason and rationality, over which he reigns supreme.
Poirot’s spiritual state is thus left unsettled. Brokenness implies a need for healing, not mere rest, as Leopold recognizes. By the end of this installment, Poirot is clearly refreshed—but is he healed? A Haunting in Venice gives no indication either way. But Poirot’s re-establishment of his detective career gives the viewer hope that his pursuit of truth will lead him to the Logos who heals. The lights are coming on for Poirot again, after all, and where there is the light of the Son, so also is there guiding truth. The door has been left ajar for future films to explore.