When the Kenneth Branagh-directed, Harold Pinter-scripted “remake” of Sleuth appeared in limited release a couple months back, the film was largely attacked and dismissed as being inferior to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1972 film of the play. It’s a criticism that makes perfect sense if what you’re expecting is another film of the play, but it’s one that’s incredibly beside the point when you realize that Pinter and Branagh have come up with an entire reimagining of the material that retains little more than the names and the basic premise of Anthony Shaffer’s play. What Mankiewicz gave us 35 years ago was an intelligently opened up theater piece that more or less just reproduced the play in all its wit, sophistication and faux sophistication. (Neither the play nor the film were quite as intellectual as they pretended to be.)
What Pinter and Branagh present is a much more wicked, cold, disturbing film that is even more confined than the original. There’s no attempt at “opening up” the film. Mankiewicz’s garden-maze first scene is gone, and all but a handful of exterior inserts (toward the end) are merely images seen on the house’s closed-circuit security system. The film itself (like its owner) never really leaves the house. The house in this version—a nightmarish modern affair, with unpleasant sculptures, lighting effects, electronic gizmos and assorted planes—feels far more like a stage set than the more realistic one in the 1972 film. This is quite literally a stage on which a drama is to be played.
Pinter’s deliciously nasty script gets down to the essence of the film from the very first. When struggling actor Milo Tindle (Jude Law) arrives at rich mystery novelist Andrew Wyke’s (Michael Caine) country house, Andrew strangely asks him if his is the “small car” parked out front. As soon as Milo admits this, Andrew delights in remarking that the other (his car) is “bigger.” In their very first exchange, we know the score between these two.
The film then proceeds to duplicate the situation of the original. Milo has come to get Andrew to agree to divorce his wife, so that she and Milo can get married. Similarly, the new film duplicates Andrew’s proposal that they stage a burglary. The idea is that Andrew will collect the insurance money, while the proceeds from the proposed stolen jewelry will allow Milo to keep the ex-Mrs. Wyke “in the style to which she’s become accustomed.” The new version, however, moves at a much faster pace (it’s nearly an hour shorter than the original) and the gloves are off much quicker (if indeed they were ever on in the first place).
Pinter’s script draws from the play, but rarely duplicates it. In the original, Milo is a hairdresser. Here he’s an actor, but one Andrew keeps “mistaking” for a hairdresser (thanks to Milo’s Italian ancestry). The tone is constantly antagonistic, and virtually nothing that is said is without a possible alternative meaning. Where Shaffer’s original dialogue was clever repartee, Pinter’s dialogue has real claws. Both his characters are out for blood. What was a kind of class war for Shaffer, becomes a weirdly homoerotic duel of wits for Pinter—quite literally in the last section of the film, which completely departs from the plotting of the original.
It’s difficult to discuss the specifics of much of the action without giving away too much (somewhere there’s someone who doesn’t know the play’s basic gimmick). I can, however, say that this is one wicked, wickedly funny film. It’s also quite fascinating to see Michael Caine—who played Milo in 1972—take on the role of Andrew Wyke (originally played by Laurence Olivier). Even allowing for the differences in the scripts, it’s interesting to note that Caine finds a sadness in the character that eluded Olivier, whose Wyke, while ultimately pathetic, was never remotely sympathetic. If you’re interested in seeing Sleuth on the screen—and it deserves that—waste no time. Chances are it won’t be around for long. Rated R for strong language.