Sleuth (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Sleuth is Kenneth Branagh's re-make/re-imagination/re-invention of the 1972 Joseph L. Mankiewicz film which, in turn, was based on Anthony Shaffer's stage play. In the original, Laurence Olivier played the high-born snob Andrew Wyke and Michael Caine was the working class hairdresser Milo Tindle. This time around, Caine is Andrew and Jude Law is Milo. The general storyline remains the same, as does the cat-and-mouse dynamic between the leads, but Branagh has dramatically upgraded the look of the movie and acclaimed playwright Harold Pinter was brought in to re-write the screenplay. The result is a script with more delicious lines and a running length that cuts about 45 minutes from the original. What's lost in translation, however, is any reason to like or sympathize with either of the principals. In the earlier film, one felt occasional pangs of empathy for both characters. Here, they're arrogant assholes, and it's tough to enjoy spending 90 minutes in the company of two such jerks.

Sleuth is all about revenge: Andrew's revenge against Milo for stealing his wife and Milo's need to strike back after Andrew humiliates him. The first two acts of the movie are, as explicitly stated, like sets in a tennis match. The third act plays out much differently in this movie than in the 1972 predecessor. Here, it's quick and clean. In the previous Sleuth, it was the most complicated of the three segments. Also, while both films end with the same incident, the implications of that incident are radically different. There's a different "winner" to the 2007 Sleuth than there is to the 1972 one. How the game has changed...

Milo visits Andrew's mansion to discuss what it will take for Andrew to give his wife a divorce. Milo, who has been having an affair with her, wants to marry her. Andrew points out that a woman like that has a voracious appetite for possessions and Milo will need a substantial bump in his financial resources to keep her happy. He offers a proposition: Milo can pretend to be a thief, break into Andrew's mansion, steal some jewels, then fence them. Andrew will collect on the insurance money. It seems to be a foolproof, win-win scheme, but it's really a trap. When Andrew springs it, Milo is caught off guard. But it's not long before he determines a way he can get back at Andrew, and the game is once again afoot.

For those who are unfamiliar with the play or the 1972 film, Sleuth can be enjoyed for its plot convolutions. For those who are aware of all the twists and turns, this is a chance to admire the performances, savor Pinter's script, and appreciate how much visual variety Branagh injects to the proceedings. Still, there's something a little dry and lifeless about the movie. It's technically proficient but emotionally barren. One doesn't feel anything for these characters except the aforementioned dislike. They both deserve what they get. And, although Pinter is a wonderful writer, there's a sense that his script is more about words than the feelings and motivations underlying them.

To keep things lively, Branagh uses all kinds of odd camera angles and mixes traditional shots with images gleaned from "security footage." Andrew's mansion is an amazing slice of Oz - a playroom for the rich and famous that's so cold and sterile that it's unfathomable how anyone but a complete narcissist could call it "home." Branagh cut his teeth on Shakespeare, so he understands how to vary the rhythms and shot selection to keep a static, dialogue-driven piece from becoming tedious.

Michael Caine is in top form as Andrew - he has perfected the superior, upper-class personality and delivers Pinter's lines with relish. Jude Law, essaying an old Caine character for the second time (the other being Alfie), is on less sure ground. He has a tendency to play scenes too broadly. Maybe the flamboyance is Branagh's fault, but there are times when Milo verges on being unintentionally comedic. The two actors exhibit a nice dark chemistry, and it's clear from the beginning that there are homosexual overtones to their interplay (these become explicit as the story progresses).

If revenge is a dish best served cold, then Andrew and Milo are dining raw. The 1972 movie was better paced and presented a superior story but this one has its own pleasures. It's an interesting failure - a film that works more successfully as a study of technique and writing than as a motion picture.

Sleuth (United States, 2007)

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Michael Caine, Jude Law
Screenplay: Harold Pinter, based on the play by Anthony Shiffer
Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos
Music: Patrick Doyle
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:26
U.S. Release Date: 2007-10-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1