Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Sleuth (2007) directed by Kenneth Branagh (starring Michael Caine, Jude Law)

Sleuth (2007). Screenplay by Harold Pinter from the play by Anthony Shaffer.

Successful crime novelist Andrew Wyke (Michael Caine) invites actor and sometime hairdresser Milo Tindle (Jude Law) out to his English country home to discuss the woman they have in common: Andrew's wife Maggie. What follows is an elaborate game of wits that can have only one winner. Or is there a winner at all?

The original 1972 Sleuth is one of my favorite movies, so I went into this one with both curiosity and trepidation. I knew it wasn't possible to equate the experience of the original, but with a Harold Pinter script, Kenneth Branagh directing, and Michael Caine as Andrew, I knew I simply had to see what happened. (By pure coincidence, I watched both this and Sweeney Todd in the same week, and they're both remakes of favorites.)

I was both disappointed and pleased. The first hour of the 2007 Sleuth basically replicates the first two-thirds of the 1972 version, up to and including a visit from the police inspector (a small role that is nonetheless pivotal), but in a way that feels very much cut to the bone. All the details are there, but little of the emotion. The meeting of these two should be fraught with tension, but Pinter's screenplay wants so much to just get on with the proceedings that it feels rushed.

From that first hour, however, events begin to depart from the Anthony Shaffer play that is the source. And, similarly, from that point on, things get really interesting for the viewer expecting a retread of the original. In an interview on the DVD, Pinter states that prior to being asked to write this script, he had neither seen the movie nor read the play. He was therefore able to give it his own stamp. And he does indeed. The tone of the final third is completely different from its predecessor, with tonal changes both modern and unexpected (though not necessarily to fans of other Michael Caine films, Deathtrap in particular).

Caine and Law are well paired here. Having played Milo in the original to Laurence Olivier's Andrew, Caine has firsthand seen the role done definitively. Luckily, apart from some hauntingly familiar line readings (Intended? Who knows?), he takes a completely different tack and offers an Andrew almost completely self-assured. Whereas, Jude Law's Milo is a very modern man: somewhat confused by his woman and, certainly in this case, merely acting as the mouthpiece for her needs. But even these perceptions are turned on their heads in a film that refuses to take anything for granted.

I've seen Law in other films before, but Sleuth is the first one where he really shines through the material. This may be due to acting opposite a heavyweight like Caine (that always seems to bring out the best in relative newcomers), or to Branagh's direction (not likely as he seems to cast who he thinks can work without his help), or to the fact that, as producer, Law reportedly initiated this project for his own purposes (the most likely, since it means he already saw himself in the role). Either way, he offers a performance far beyond where I assumed his abilities lay and emerges as the real star of the film.

Though this Sleuth can never expect to stand up to the legacy of the original, it does indeed prove itself to be a worthy companion. And one that deserves respect, if only for taking the road less traveled by. In an era that wants film viewers to take everything at face value, a film that circumvents our expectations is a welcome one indeed.

1 comment:

KentAllard said...

Good review. I've been wary of this one myself, since Sleuth was a favorite movie of my wife and I way back when, but based on this, I'll probably check it out.

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