Producers: Kenneth Branagh,  Judy Hofflund, Ridley Scott and Simon Kinberg   Director: Kenneth Branagh   Screenplay: Michael Green   Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Yeoh, Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Tina Fey, Kelly Reilly, Jude Hill, Kyle Allen, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ali Khan, Emma Laird and Rowan Robinson   Distributor: 20th Century Studios

Grade: C

Screenwriter Michael Green played fairly fast and loose in his first two adaptations of Agatha Christie books for Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot (“Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile”) —even making striking changes in the character of the detective himself, refashioning him as more athletic (as well as haunted by his past)—but in this third one he pretty much abandons the plot of the novel (“Hallowe’en Party,” from 1969) altogether, replacing it with something quite new that incorporates shards of the original but in highly altered form.  Since the book, quite frankly, wasn’t one of Christie’s best—overly complicated and incredible even by her standards (the more faithful 2011 version in the David Suchet ITV series also made substantial alterations to smooth out the rough spots)—that wouldn’t be a great loss were Green’s inventions an improvement.  Unfortunately, they’re not.

Apparently considering an English country house a boring setting, Green moves the action to Venice, which fits with the series’ penchant for exotic locales.  It’s 1947, and Poirot has retired to the city of canals, having given up detection in a world he sees as deplorably, irremediably violent.  He’s even hired a bodyguard, Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio) to fend off supplicants asking for his help, preferring to tend to his garden. 

But he’s approached by an old acquaintance, novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), here a pushy American, to look into an old case with her, and since he’s indebted to her for having made him a celebrity in one of her books, he relents.  He will accompany her to the decaying palazzo of Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), a gloomy old structure supposedly haunted by the ghosts of orphan children who had attended the annual Halloween parties thrown for them at the place.  Rowena has arranged that after this year’s party there will be a séance conducted by renowned medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), who she hopes will contact the spirit of her late daughter Alicia (Rowan Robinson).  The lovesick Alicia apparently committed suicide by throwing herself from her room into the canal—or did she?  Oliver hopes that Poirot, a complete skeptic, can unmask Reynolds as a fraud, giving the novelist grist for a comeback book.

But the evening is interrupted by a couple of deaths.  Supernatural forces are presumed to be at work, but Poirot rejects such notions despite experiencing hallucinatory episodes himself, and vows to find the culprit.

Green takes a cue from “Orient Express” by having the guests trapped in the palazzo by a terrible storm, just as the train was stopped by an avalanche; periodically editor Lucy Donaldson inserts shots of ferocious waves slamming into the outside walls to impress the situation on us.  So Poirot has plenty of time to reason through to the truth, even though an impulse to see what it would be like to bob for apples (a central element in the book, much less so here) threatens to derail his work rather definitively; and of course his hallucinations are an impediment too.

Those in the palazzo with him include—in addition to Drake, Oliver and Portfoglio—Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), Rowena’s doctor, traumatized by his experience in the war, and his precocious adolescent son Leopold (Jude Hill); Nicholas and Desdemona Holland (Ali Khan and Emma Laird), the Roma assistants to Reynolds; Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), Rowena’s long-time housekeeper; and interloper Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen), Alicia’s onetime fiancé, whose breakup with the girl many consider the cause of her fatal depression.

It wouldn’t be fair to disclose which of them wind up dead, or how they meet their fate, though one of the killings is staged pretty spectacularly and another effectively constitutes a locked-room mystery of the sort that might have been the centerpiece of a film on its own.  There isn’t much chance that anyone unfamiliar with the book could identify the killer, though it would be wise to keep in mind the old rule about fingering the least likely suspect; when Poirot finally lays out the solution, it turns out that Green has manufactured a series of interrelated elements no less complicated than Christie’s, and no more credible.  But that’s the nature of the beast, and at least one can admit that a faithful retelling of the novel, something approximated in the Suchet version, would be no more satisfying.

That being said, it has to be pointed out that Branagh’s realization of the screenplay leaves a good deal to be desired.  He wants the film to be, at least in part, a genteel horror movie as much as a period mystery, but his idea of making it one involve little more than numerous jump scares, naturally accompanied by sudden bursts in Hildur Gudnadottir’s score—and a generalized murkiness.  Even the beauties of Venice are muted in Haris Zambarloukos’ blanched cinematography, which also gives the interior of the creaky palazzo—designed as a spectacular exhibition of gloom by John Paul Kelly—a dour, musty look too.  By contrast some of Sammy Sheldon’s costumes—especially those for Reynolds—are positively flamboyant.

Most of the characters remain, as in Christie’s books, more like caricatures, and the actors can’t do much but embody the one or two qualities the screenplay endows them with.  But Yeoh brings a histrionic extravagance to the medium, and Hill an owlish arrogance to young Leopold.  Fey is, unexpectedly, a disappointment as Oliver.  The author is presented here as a much more selfish, acerbic creature than Christie portrayed her as in various books, and while Green provides her with a few zingers that Fey delivers cattily, for the most part the performance is curiously dull.  As for Branagh, his interpretation of Poirot as a more tortured, extroverted figure than he was in the books is familiar from the two earlier pictures in the series, and you will either take to it or harbor an understandable preference for Suchet or, in a pinch, Albert Finney’s wonderfully fussy one-off on the detective in Sidney Lumet’s sumptuous 1974 version of “Orient Express.”

Christie purists will probably find this “Haunting” maddeningly unfaithful to its source.  But even those who care little about that will likely judge it an oddly bland, far-fetched, lumbering thriller.