Don’t call it a remake of the classic 1972 film based on Anthony Shaffer’s stage play which starred Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier as two men locked in a tricky and sometimes vicious game of verbal one-upmanship. No, the new Sleuth, penned by the Nobel laureate playwright Harold Pinter, has, for better and for worse, only a passing relationship with the original.
In the new film, directed by Kenneth Branagh, Caine graduates to the role of Andrew Wyke, the oddball crime novelist originally essayed by Olivier. Jude Law is Milo Tindle, an out of work actor and the paramour of Wyke’s estranged wife. When Milo visits Andrew at his eccentric country mansion to convince him to grant his wife a divorce the pair engage in a power struggle. Each man is pushed to his emotional limit, but who will come out on top?
The first thing you’ll notice about Sleuth is that it looks great. Branagh has set the entire movie in Wyke’s house, a strange and wonderful place that looks like a cross between The Jetson’s living room and a museum tableau of 21st century furniture design. Filled with stylish but uncomfortable looking chairs and filled with sharp edges, it perfectly captures the prickly, uneasy feel of the script.
Pinter has crafted a script that seems deceptively simple on its face, but reveals much for those willing to dig a little deeper. As the two actors parry back and forth even a line as innocuous as “Would you like a drink? I’m having vodka,” becomes laden with meaning. It would be a throw-away line in any other script, but here, as Wyke offers Milo a cocktail it reveals much about his character. He’s the perfect host, but also a controlling one. When he says “I’m having vodka,” it’s a passive aggressive way of suggesting that Milo also have a vodka. It also sets him up as a egomaniac. Who cares what he’s having? Certainly not Milo, but Wyke feels the need to announce everything in his life, even the most banal tidbits as if they were fascinating nuggets of wisdom.
Caine perfectly captures the rhythms of Pinter’s dialogue. He is to Pinter what Madonna is to the pointy bra. That is he was born to say those words. Law less so. The first hour of Sleuth crackles with snappy wordplay, humor and the two actors seem to relish every second of screen time, particularly Caine who fully embodies the Wyke’s English eccentric character.
Regrettably as the running time creeps up to the hour-and-a-half mark the story takes an unfortunate turn into psycho drama, and while Caine shines, Law’s work becomes over-the-top and even a bit screechy. His transformation in the movie’s final third didn’t work for me, and threatens to sink the entire film. Luckily Caine’s strong performance anchors the final moments of the movie.
Sleuth is a flawed, but interesting movie and worth the price of admission to see Michael Caine, one of film’s great actors, really strut his stuff.