Sleuth (2007): Kenneth Branagh’s Reamke, Starring Jude Law and Michael Caine

Venice Film Festival 2007 (Competition)–You can add Kenneth Branagh’s “Sleuth” to the list of unnecessary remakes, a truly curiosity items, as we used to say in Variety. Just like “Alfie,” two years ago, in which Jude Law also recreated a Michael Caine star vehicle, “Sleuth,” a remake of the Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1972 film, casts Jude Law in the original Michael Caine role and Michael Caine in the role that Olivier had memorably played.

What on earth had motivated Jude Law, who’s also credited as a producer (alongside with Simon Halfon, Tom Sternberg, Marion Pilowsky, Branagh, and Simon Moseley) to redo Anthony Shaffer’s 1970 Tony Award-winning play, a work that was never a good film (or play, for that matter) in the first place Lack of good screen roles

Olivier was older than Michael Caine by two decades when the first version was done, but in this two-handler melodrama, the age difference between the actors is close to four decades, which renders the whole thing even less credible than it was. Add to it the fact that Law gives an actorish, unconvincing performance, and that the duo seldom create real menace on screen, and you have a film that’s bound to disappoint critics and viewers alike.

In 1972, “Sleuth” was nominated for major Oscars, including Best Actor for both Olivier and Caine (the winner was deservedly Brando, for “The Godfather”), but it’s doubtful whether the new “Sleuth” would garner any nominations or kudos in what seems to be a very strong year for both American and foreign films.

Since the material is basically trashy, the new version also represents a step down for the playwright and screenwriter Harold Pinter, the recent winner of Nobel Prize for Literature. As expected, Pinter imbues the text with some of his distinctive stylistic touches, such as greater erotic tension between the two characters, a more explicit language with lots of F-word, and a more pronounced social-class struggle that recalls such vintage Pinter works as “The Servant” and “The Birthday Party.” Occasionally, this “Sleuth” also brings to mind “Betrayal,” a Pinter play that was made into a brilliant movie in 1983, also centering on the dissection of an adulterous affair, though without the superfluous gimmicks and tricks of “Sleuth.”

Overall, though, it’s the same old theatrical powerhouse that never for a second lets you forget the work’s stage originsdespite some elegant production design and smooth direction from Kenneth Branagh, who also seems to run short of ideas for worthy projects to direct (or to star in, for that matter).

Except for reflecting contemporary technology, with more sophisticated alarm systems, safes, video screens, and so on, contrary to Law’s belief, this version of “Sleuth” has not “evolved into something really modern,” and does not contain “plenty of undiscovered territory within the kernel of the old story,” as he is quoted in the press notes.

The only significant advantage that this “Sleuth has over the 1972 version is its substantially shorter running time, only 88 minutes. Mankiewicz’s version was indulgent and excessive, cloaking in at 138 minutes! Other than that, it’s the same old yarn about two men locked within an estate, one older and richer, the other younger, more handsome, and sexually potent, fighting physically and psychologically over a woman (we never get to meet), who’s still married to the older guy.

Tale begins with the arrival of Milo Tindle (Law), a handsome thirtysomething nouveau riche at the remote country estate of Andrew Wyke (Caine), a well-known detective novelist with a passion for elaborate games. From the first sentence”You’re f—–g my wife”the two men engage in a battle of wits that at first seems like fun only to get deadly serious as the night progresses.

Wyke makes it clear right away that he knows about Tindle’s affair with his estranged wife, and he initially conceals his jealousy and rage by darkly humorous chat, while examining his rival in order to see what’s so “special” about Tindle, and what’s missing from him.

Wyke then comes up with an original plan that promises to be mutually beneficial. Recognizing his spoiled wife’s need for luxurious lifestyle, which obviously Tindle cannot afford for too long, he proposes a crime. Since no one is at the house, and no one has seen Tindle arriving, Wyke’s idea is for Tindle to put on a clown disguise and steal his wife’s jewels from the safe, thus allowing him Wyke to collect the lucrative insurance money and affording Tindle to support his mistress’ glamorous lifestyle.

For the first reel or so, Branagh manages to keep his mystery both elegant and stylish, with a number of twists and turns and some shocking revelations about the psyches and weaknesses of both men. But once the premise is laid out, the rest becomes more of the above, with a tone that increasingly gets more serious and menacing before ending the cat-and-mouse yarn on a predictable, only semi-satisfying note.

Whether conscious or not, this “Sleuth” is replete with sharp, angular objects, such as ladders, guns, and knives, bearing phallic meaning of the most obvious kind. To open up the play, Branagh moves his camera gracefully in and around the house. Periodically, the characters go from one room to another, and outdoors for a brief moment, when Wyke instructs Tindle of how to climb a ladder and break into his own house without getting caught.

Cast

Andrew Wyke – Michael Caine
Milo Tindle – Jude Law

Credits

A Sony Pictures Classics release, presented with Castle Rock Entertainment, of a Riff Raff (U.S.)/Timnick Films (U.K.) production.
Produced by Jude Law, Simon Halfon, Tom Sternberg, Marion Pilowsky, Kenneth Branagh, Simon Moseley. Co-producer, Ben Jackson. Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Screenplay, Harold Pinter, based on the play by Anthony Shaffer.
Camera: Haris Zambarloukos.
Editor: Neil Farrell.
Music: Patrick Doyle.
Production designer: Tim Harvey.
Art director: Iain White.
Set decorator: Celia Bobak.
Costume designer: Alexandra Byrne.
Makeup/hair/prosthetics designer: Eileen Kastner-Delago.
Sound: Peter Glossup.
Visual effects supervisor: Richard Higham.
Special effects supervisor: David Harris.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 88 Minutes.

Reviewed by Patrick Z McGavin