From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Sleuth
Full review behind the jump
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writers: Screenplay by Harold Pinter, based on the play by Anthony Shaffer
Producers: Kenneth Branagh, Simon Halfon, Jude Law, Simon Moseley, Marion Pilowsky, Tom Sternberg
Stars: Michael Caine, Jude Law, Walter Plinge, Harold Pinter, Eve Channing
It is often the case that the more complex and sophisticated we fancy ourselves, the more obvious our true simple appetites and savage nature are revealed to one another. At the end of the day, isn’t it possible that we’re just out for money and sex and dominance, and what are money and dominance but means to demonstrate our sex appeal? Call it cynical, but it’s undeniable that dramatizations of this irony, like Sleuth, can be wicked good fun.
The original 1972 film adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s play featured Lord Laurence Olivier squaring off against the young Michael Caine in a deadly battle of escalating wit and pranks; now, 35 years of savvy later, it is Sir Michael Caine playing the elder to Jude Law, who has already stepped into Caine’s shoes in the re-make of Alfie. For both that reason and the nature of the plot they’re about to dive into, it is, naturally, cheekily, inevitable that someone ask “What’s it all about?”
The film is a facelift, with a new screenplay by Harold Pinter and direction by Kenneth Branagh. Branagh's career as a filmmaker has been a sometimes dizzying, sometimes disastrous, sometimes brilliant dance between theatrical flourish and imposed Hitchcockian montage discipline. He seems to relish not making up his mind what kind of director he wants to be, and that makes this material sort of ideal for him, because the key to putting it on screen is a playfulness that must match the childish malice of its characters. And for awhile the elements come together brilliantly, until they realize they don’t know where to end up now that they’re together.
I’ll try to say as little about the plot as I can. It begins when Andrew Wyke (Caine) – a novelist who has heaps of money and has dined with Her Majesty, invites the young Milo Tindolini (Jude Law) to his mansion. The strapping and confident Milo has been having an affair with Andrew’s wife Marguerite (Eve Channing), so the invitation is something of a surprise to him. Andrew says that he wants to be rid of the unfaithful Marguerite, but the only way to make sure she won’t come back is to see that Milo has the financial means to keep her amused. He doesn’t, but if he were to steal Marguerite’s jewels from Andrew’s safe…
There is much more, of course, layer upon layer of deception and gamesmanship involving guns that may or may not have real bullets in them, a murder which may or may not have happened. Although this is essentially a two-man game, there is a third performance that commands attention, that of a common but sharp-eyed police detective who appears in the picture’s middle and, as British police are famous for doing, notices something funny’s goin’ on ‘round ‘ere. The policeman is played by Walter Plinge, a renowned name on the British stage who is a complete unknown to film audiences, though Broadway devotees may know his American cousin, the great George Spelvin. Plinge, with a grumbling voice and a set of hideous teeth he uses, we suspect, to undermine peoples’ composure, has big shoes to fill, given the unforgettable performance by Alec Cawthorne as Inspector Doppler in the original film, but he carries it off magnificently.
Branagh’s camera is a party to the movie's many deceptions – often peering through security cameras or reflections or eschewing the normal comforts of framing to zoom way in to the faces of Caine, Law, and Plinge, and linger there. One shot on Caine’s ambiguous face waits an agonizing length of time, you can sense Branagh reveling in our need to know what he’s thinking at this all-important moment.
The house is a character unto itself, one so grotesque as to astound. It’s like a cross between an Apple catalog and a modern gallery of horrible art, with sliding walls and a caged elevator and laser-activated gadgets on every surface. Backed by Patrick Doyle's score, which plays like chamber music for sociopaths, one can’t imagine ever being in a good mood in this house. But it is built to contain people who enjoy evil moods more, and is now playing host to two men discovering that being nasty to one another is more fun than anything they’ve done in years, including Marguerite.
And that ends up being the trouble; after each star gets their share of licks in, the movie stops cold, uncertain of where to go. The final “act”, to use theatrical terminology, amounts to a final raising of the stakes, as before, but instead of carrying on the ideas of murder and other criminal endeavors, it aims differently, inwardly, towards the nature of desire at its most mercurial. This is undoubtedly what most inspired Pinter, who has made a career out of constructing deft wordplays that act as a mosquito net barely holding back churning but symbiotic swarms of loathing and need. Is it a bluff? Who is the more vulnerable in this final exchange? While psychologically fascinating, this newly-conceived arc fails to cap off what came before, the movie feels like it’s been caught off the map and is now muddling its way back, albeit cleverly, to the inevitable destination.
This is a story steeped in lies and misdirections. I have even had to misdirect you in this review (comment and I’ll be happy to explain under a spoiler warning). But what is true is that with its gleeful bad intentions and brisk 86-minute running time, Sleuth is like a potent hammer-shot of whiskey. You get a good burn and your head spins, and it doesn’t finish smooth, but you relish having taken it, because sometimes that’s just the animal mood you’re in.