Warning: This article contains spoilers for A Haunting in Venice (2023).
Are ghosts real? That question is at the center of one of the most anticipated movies of the season, A Haunting in VeniceKenneth Branagh’s latest outing Hercule Poirot mystery. Loosely based on Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Partythe film spends most of its time at a Venetian palazzo one rain-soaked Halloween night. Summoned there by his friend and Christie-esque crime writer, Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), Branagh’s retired Poirot finds himself attending a seance run by the mischievous Joyce Reynolds (Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s Michelle Yeoh) at the behest of the palazzo’s owner, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), a singer who has been mourning the tragic death of her daughter, Alicia (Rowan Robinson), for over a year.
When he is later attacked by an unseen killer and Joyce is found impaled on a statue, Poirot is forced to try to uncover the truth behind not only the death of Yeoh’s self-proclaimed medium but also Rowena’s daughter. Along the way, Branagh’s usually clear-eyed detective finds himself plagued by sounds and images of ghosts running through the deteriorating palazzo’s darkened halls. His resolve is tested and his cynicism regarding the afterlife is slowly but surely chipped away by his increasing number of seemingly supernatural encounters.
How A Haunting in Venice sets up its mystery plot
Unfortunately, it’s only after Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), a former wartime medic suffering from PTSD, is found dead with a knife in his back that Poirot finally realizes the truth about both his visions and the murders that have torn Rowena’s home apart from within. It is, therefore, with great sadness that Poirot announces to the house’s remaining occupants that it was, in fact, Reilly’s mourning Rowena who effectively killed not only Yeoh’s Joyce and Dornan’s Ferrier but also her own daughter.
Referencing some of her earlier remarks about the sadness she felt when Alicia became engaged to Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen), Poirot explains how Rowena used the exotic flowers in her rooftop garden to create a poisonous honey, which she then began to put into Alicia’s daily tea. Her daughter subsequently became bedridden, seemingly delusional, and — most importantly — under the permanent care of Rowena. One night when her mother wasn’t present, though, Alicia experienced a bout of violent sickness. In response, the Drakes’ housekeeper, Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), unknowingly gave her too much of Rowena’s poisoned honey in order to try and soothe her.
Alicia died as a result and, in an attempt to cover up her role in her daughter’s death, Rowena scratched Alicia’s back and threw her body into the Venetian canal located beneath her bedroom’s balcony window. In doing so, she played into the locals’ fears about the ghosts rumored to haunt her home. Shortly thereafter, however, Rowena started to receive blackmail letters threatening to tell others the truth about what she’d done. It was with that in mind that she hired Joyce and then, after growing suspicious of her extensive knowledge of Alicia’s death, killed Yeoh’s medium when no one else was around. Later, Rowena became convinced it was really Leslie, Alicia’s former doctor, who’d been blackmailing her, so she forced him to kill himself by threatening the life of his son, Leopold (Jude Hill).
What Rowena didn’t realize was that her mysterious blackmailer was neither Leslie nor Joyce, but Leopold, who’d figured out the truth about Alicia’s “sickness” by reading through his father’s medical notes. Aware that Leslie was in no condition to financially provide for them anymore, Leopold decided to blackmail Rowena in order to keep himself and his father afloat. Poirot, meanwhile, only uncovered all of this after realizing that he’d been unknowingly given a dose of Rowena’s leftover honey — the true cause of his ghostly visions — earlier in the night.
How does A Haunting in Venice end?
In the wake of all of these revelations, Rowena attempts to evade capture by running to her palazzo’s roof, only for her tearful confrontation with Poirot to be interrupted by the arrival of Alicia’s ghost. Poirot, terrified, watches as her daughter’s ghost pulls Rowena over the roof’s edge and sends her plummeting to the Venetian waters below, where she hits her head on a wooden support beam. The last image viewers then see of Reilly’s Rowena is her lifeless body being pulled further beneath the water’s surface by the ghostly specter of her daughter. A Haunting in Venice’s fateful Halloween night, consequently, ends on a note of tragic, otherworldly justice.
The next morning, Poirot bids farewell to Cottin’s Olga, who announces her intention to take care of Leopold in his late father’s stead. Ariadne, for her part, apologizes for trying to use Poirot to continue boosting her own literary career, while Branagh’s world-weary sleuth agrees to resume his career as a detective. The film then ends on a note of lighthearted, if melancholic, victory for its central, ever-vigilant hero.
As for whether or not ghosts are real, A Haunting in Venice never offers a definitive answer one way or the other. What the film does argue, however, is that a person can be haunted by many things, whether it be personal mistakes or happy memories. The secret to going on isn’t to run away from our own ghosts, though, but to learn to live with them — no matter what form they take.
A Haunting in Venice is now playing in theaters.