Back in 1972 Anthony Shaffer adapted his own play Sleuth for the big screen. It attracted a big name director, Joseph L Mankiewicz, arguably the greatest British actor who ever lived, Sir Laurence Olivier and the hottest young English actor of his generation, Michael Caine. The story of a working class hairdresser who visits the country mansion owned by the husband of his lover in order to persuade him to divorce her so that they can start a life together was a simple device on which hung two great performances, some wonderful wordplay and a plot twist which, for its time, was a breath of fresh air. Watching it now, 35 years later, it’s amazing just how entertaining it still is. The two stars trade insults with style and panache, and the games they play in a testosterone filled bout of one-upmanship are a delight. Even now the 136 minute running time seems to fly by. This leads to one burning question. Why would anyone feel the need to remake it? Why mess with something that all these years later stands up to repeated viewings? Step forward Kenneth Branagh. For it is he who has decided to direct this Christmas turkey.
Michael Caine is still in attendance, only this time he takes the older role of Andrew Wyke, with Jude Law taking on the Caine role of Milo Tindle, now an out of work actor rather than the more effeminate hairdresser. With a script by Harold Pinter and Branagh at the helm we could have been forgiven for expecting great things, but how wrong we would have been.
There is nothing in this film that works the way it should. Caine’s country mansion has been changed from a country pile to a state of the art nightmare. All reflective surfaces and blue neon strip lights it resembles an 80’s disco more than a place where someone would choose to live. In fact as the camera prowls the halls you see no evidence that anyone actually does live in it. Even the bedroom looks like the kind of MFI showroom display that you would walk to the other side of the store to avoid. The state of the art security system, that features so heavily, seems to have cameras that can pan and dolly at a whim which makes you think that the two are never actually alone in the house as you keep expecting to come across a team of cameramen operating them.
The actors try their best but the dialogue they are asked to wrestle with is the kind of pretentious stage talk that you would have hoped had faded into theatrical history some time in the early eighties. Whereas in the original the two leads thrust and parried like a couple of Olympic fencers, here they are like two World War 2 grunts with bazookas on their shoulders trying to blast each other to kingdom come. Caine comes off best as you get the feeling that at least he can see the ridiculousness of it all and is just there to have a good time, and a part to get his teeth into. Law is woefully out of his comfort zone (although judging by recent performances it’s hard to know quite where his comfort zone is any more) and seems to think that by opening his eyes as wide as he can makes up for the lack of any real performance.
Of course an actor is only as good as the words that he is given so most of the blame must go to Harold Pinter. Getting on in years he obviously has no idea how people talk to each other in real life, with not one line of his screenplay ringing true. It’s as though he thought of the most theatrical language he could and then thought to himself; how can I make this sound even more theatrical? To cap it all he throws in a ridiculous homo erotic sub text towards the end which had my friend leaning over to me and saying “Oh, I didn’t realise they were gay!!”
On top of all this, the cherry on the cake is Branagh’s direction. You’ll be hard pushed to find a more showy display of direction in recent years. When the camera isn’t up the noses of the actors it’s either filming them through the security camera monitors or through any reflective surface he can find. No one likes a show off Ken!
I could rant about how disappointing this film is till the cows come home but a line has to be drawn, and I’m drawing one here. Whether this will work for people who haven’t seen the original is an interesting point and one I’m keen to find out but I somehow doubt today’s moviegoers will fall for its dubious charms.
If you are thinking of seeing this I would highly recommend buying the original on DVD instead. It’s better in every conceivable way.