SLEUTH (dir. Kenneth Branagh)
The true star of Sleuth, the remake of the 1970’s cat and mouse thriller, isn’t its up to date A-list cast. Michael Caine, playing the role originally essayed by Sir Laurence Olivier, is a decent enough heavy, and Jude Law, inhabiting Caine’s old part, is an equally adept dandy. Together, they forge a unique performance unit that literally grabs the screen. Nor is it the work of playwright/literary lord Harold Pinter. While off his typical linguistic game by a few disadvantage points (he is adapting another’s work, after all), his exchanges percolate with the type of tongue twisting that makes theater types gush. Nor is it the sterile modernity of Tim Harvey’s production design. It may look like Caine’s Andrew Wyke lives in a funhouse version of Hitler’s bunker, but it’s really a contemporary ruse, a way of making the conventional seem unreal and daunting.
No, the real featured performer here is a typically unsung hero known as Kenneth Branagh’s camera. It zips and zings, floating around large spaces and creeping around corners. It stays stoic and stationary when needed, and flips itself over like a puppy wanting attention when the narrative needs a creative spark. Constantly upstaging the rest of the cast, and reminding us over and over that we are watching a stogy, old fashioned stage play, Branagh’s loopy lens is indeed the best part of Sleuth. Everything else is just plain pointless. While it’s hard to imagine a battle of wits between war horse Caine and stud muffin Law to be anything other than kinetic, this exceedingly uninspired update of the 1972 original provides the perfect argument for leaving old cinema well enough alone. While the previous incarnation was far from perfect, this adaptation makes it look like a classic from the Old Vic.
When our sticky narrative begins, we meet Andrew Wyke, a successful crime author. Having learned that his wife is cuckolding him with a two bit actor/ hairdresser named Milo Tindle, he invites the bloke over for a sit down. Our young stud is glad to have the confrontation. He wants the Missus all to himself. But Wyke won’t give up without a fight, and he stages an elaborate trick in which he threatens the young man. The fatal results spell doom for this rich writer’s freedom—or do they? Perhaps this too is part of another elaborate ruse meant to scare Wyke into admitting the adultery and losing his wife forever. Whatever the case, it’s clear that these two men don’t like each other. The victor will most likely be the individual that has the gumption to go all the way—even as far as prison.
There are three basic things wrong with this remake (or as Branagh has noted, ‘reimagining’). The first is the decision to dump most of Anthony Schaffer’s original plotting. Sure, the set-up is the same, the cheated on husband, the dashing if slightly dumb lover, the surreal sense of one-upmanship between the two, the elaborate plot twists and interconnect charade. But where Pinter and Branagh break from tradition is as profound as it is perplexing. First off, most of Wyke’s infidelity is out. There is a hint, but we really sense he adores his trophy spouse. Second, there’s a last act turn toward talky desperation. It’s as if, after delivering two tripwire segments, everyone decided on something hackneyed and senseless for a finale. It really reeks of a massive screenplay stumble and practically destroys all that came before.
Next is the Act II twist. Of course, in order to discuss it, we need to include a SPOILER ALERT. When Jude Law shows up in disguise as the gruff and smelly cop, he’s about as convincing as a high schooler embodying Willy Loman. There is just too much of the charismatic actor under all the greasepaint and fake features for us to buy the flim flam. And the back and forth between Wyke and this bogus bobby seems to ‘drag’ on forever. Long before our characters uncover the gag, we are bored waiting for said shoe to drop. The final facet that fails to connect is the homosexual angle. Again, another SPOILER is mandatory. In this version of the play, Wyke invites Tindle to be his “traveling companion” around the world, describing all the non-erotic male bonding they can experience while living together and sharing a bed. Apart from sounding like a Hays Code version of same sex innuendo, the veiled references aimed at maximizing intrigue end up resulting in unsettled aggravation.
It clearly can’t be a matter of cinematic courage. We’ve grown up a lot in the last 50 years, and Caine even engaged in an eyebrow raising liplock with a male costar before, in the like minded motion picture puzzle box Death Trap. But just like everything else in Sleuth, even the most scandalous material is measured and antiseptic. In fact, most of the movie is as devoid of color and character as Wyke’s warship gray homestead. Branagh braves a lot of possible criticism for tampering with what ended up being Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s last film. The director, noted for such Tinsel Town treasures as All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, and Suddenly, Last Summer, would have never sold his story out this way. Instead, he would have challenged convention and deconstructed the essence of Schaeffer’s opus. Branagh, instead, simply guts the beast and sets it up in a new, high tech trench for all to see.
And the view isn’t very viable at all. While some of the scenes crackle with the kind of thespian fireworks we expect from such bright British lights, Sleuth is claustrophobic and cold, more a mausoleum than an actual movie—and it’s equally strewn with the corpses of the past and their unfriendly ghosts. Perhaps if Law had been replaced with someone sturdier, say Daniel Day Lewis or Ewan McGregor. Maybe if Pinter had polished the knotty narrative to the point of a high, histrionic strewn gloss. It could be that Branagh has made the very opposite of a thriller—a movie that doesn’t fray the nerves as much as recognize their biological importance and then politely moves on. There is great tension here, but also great tediousness. During the days when Dame Agatha Christie’s The Mouse Trap was the longest running show in theater history, this kind of heavy handed antagonist byplay found favor with an audience. But in a Saw born environment, to be obvious is to be obsolete.
Still, that camera carries on. It gets in close to see Law’s fake teeth and Caine’s conniving eyes. It follows action from various surveillance set-ups, giving the movements a video game like quality. It reveals secrets and hinders clues. But most of all, it announces itself as easily the best element of what is otherwise a magnificent misfire. As mysteries go, it’s mindless and quite inconsequential. As a lesson in applying lenses, Sleuth manages a bit of relevancy—if only a bit.