Adapting Anthony Shaffer’s acclaimed stage play Sleuth for the screen was a dopey idea way the hell back in 1972, the first time it was attempted. The reason is both simple and spoiler-laden, though I’m not sure how strenuously one should work to preserve the Big Secret of a moss-covered whodunit. Basically, the ruse depended upon an application of stagecraft that doesn’t translate well to a medium in which the actors’ faces fill an enormous screen—not to mention that a movie audience isn’t likely to believe that while the posters advertise Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine (the original’s leads), half of the film will in fact star some weird-looking unknown. Kenneth Branagh’s new remake, for which the text has been radically overhauled by playwright Harold Pinter—essentially the theatrical world’s anti-Shaffer—doesn’t make this elementary mistake. Instead, it makes about three dozen brand-new and even more deleterious mistakes, in the process transforming Sleuth from a mildly enjoyable trifle with an obvious twist ending into an aggressively noxious fiasco that seems as if it might never end.
Pinter, who claims never to have seen or read Shaffer’s play, has reimagined the material so thoroughly that the two films share little more than Caine—now playing the Olivier role, with nouveau Alfie Jude Law stepping into Caine’s former shoes; it’s all very knowing—and a basic premise. Milo Tindle (Law), a penniless actor, visits the home of fabulously wealthy mystery novelist Andrew Wyke (Caine) in order to ask the older man to grant his young wife—who is now Milo’s lover—a divorce. Following a great deal of macho badinage, Andrew agrees, but on one condition: He wants Milo to rob him. Or, rather, he wants Milo to pretend to rob him, thereby allowing Andrew to cash in on the insurance for his wife’s expensive jewelry. Milo, who apparently possesses only two or three functioning brain cells, says, Sure, why not, whatever. He follows Andrew’s instructions. Andrew produces a pistol. A shot rings out. And a few days later, a suspiciously hirsute police detective, who doesn’t seem to correspond to any of the (two) principal cast members, shows up asking tough questions about Milo’s whereabouts.
To its credit, the new Sleuth doesn’t really try to fool us into thinking that this would-be Columbo is anybody but Milo-the-actor in disguise—though it’s still hard to swallow that he successfully fools Andrew, who’s only a few feet away from the putty nose and pasted-on muttonchops. Pinter is less interested in the gotcha than in the gonads, and he’s turned Shaffer’s teasingly literate duel into a full-on, testosterone-poisoned war between competing alpha males, in which the absent woman for whom they’re ostensibly fighting amounts to a Hitchcockian McGuffin. Trouble is, this is Pinter at his most self-parodically affected—you can practically set your watch by the rhythm of his incantatory repetitions and pregnant pauses. (Andrew: “I quite enjoy [whatever].” Milo: “Do you?” Andrew: “Yes. [Pause.] I do.”) And what might have worked as sly homoerotic subtext instead gets lugged right into the text proper, so that we can’t possibly fail to grasp that these verbal daggers are just sublimated intercourse.
Still, this all might have been reasonably tolerable had Branagh not overdirected it into a self-consciously postmodernist coma. Once acclaimed as his generation’s Orson Welles, he’s looking more and more like a cut-rate Luc Besson, addicted to empty spectacle and grandiose mannerism. Here, he turns Andrew’s isolated estate into an insane techno-gadget nightmare, more like the mutant offspring of a Soho gallery and a Sharper Image catalog than anywhere that even the most pretentiously wealthy human being might choose to live. Furthermore, he seems to be convinced that any given action—even one as simple and uninflected as a man driving up to a house and another man greeting him at the front door—is best served by being shot from the least likely vantage point, such as from 50 feet overhead or through several distorting panes of thick glass. It’s painful enough watching Caine and Law struggle with Pinter’s staccato dialogue; there’s no need to turn them into entombed mannequins as well. If you must see Sleuth, rent the original. At least your laughter will be more affectionate.
Michael Caine, Jude Law
Directed by Kenneth Branagh