"Sleuth" *** 1\2 ( out of ****)
Yesterday I reviewed Michael Haneke's remake of his own film, "Funny Games", in that review I mentioned this film. "Sleuth" is a remake of the 1972 Josephn L. Mankiewicz's film of the same title, which itself was an adaptation of Anthony Shaffer's play.
In the original Laurence Olivier and a very young Michael Caine get into a battle of wits and male ego in a series of games and revenge. This time around Caine takes on the Olivier role as Jude Law appears in his second Michael Caine remake, the first was "Alfie".
This time however the film is directed by Kenneth Branagh. At first I thought what an odd choice to direct this film. Branagh is mostly associated with his Shakespeare adaptations including "Hamlet" and "Love's Labour Lost". But, if you think about it, isn't death and revenge usually prominent in Shakespeare's work? You can't deny its existence in "Hamlet". And of course, Branagh has directed another mystery film before, "Dead Again" back in 1991.
If you've seen the original film or for that matter, the play, you pretty much know what to expect. If you haven't seen either, I'll give you a quick run down of the plot. Michael Caine plays Andrew Wyke. A successful crime writer, whose wife is having an affair with Milo Tindle (Jude Law). Wyke's wife wants a divorce so she can marry Milo. The two men meet at Wyke's home to discuss the matter. According to Wyke, Milo can have his wife. Wyke's is fed up with his money hungry, gold digging wife. He has found himself another woman. Still though, Wyke's worries Milo, an out of work actor, will not be able to provide for his wife and soon she will come crawling back to him. Wyke has an idea. Their are jewels hidden in his safe which are worth a million pounds, half a million in U.S. dollars. Wyke wants Milo to steal the jewels and have them pawned in Amsterdam, where he will get 800 million pounds for them and thus lead him to be able to support Wyke's wife.
I can tell you all of this information because it isn't really what the plot is about. Everything I've just told you is presented in the first half hour or so of the film. The interesting stuff happens later.
The two men start to play games with each other. Each man tries to humilate the other. It is a series of mind games, with each man trying to prove his masculinity to the other.
Luckily for the Branagh and cast, it had been a while since I had seen the original film version, so I was a little rusty as to what happens. But it didn't matter. I forgot about the original and simply watched this version with great excitement. The film works on its own. There is no need to compare the two versions.
You might think a film revolving around only two characters will be boring. I was so involved watching the film, I actually hadn't realized there are only two characters until the ending credits rolled by. So much action and suspense happens you forget the film is basically a conversation between two people.
What makes "Sleuth" work is Harold Pinter's adapted screenplay. It is full of wit and sharp cutting remarks. There is a great deal of chemistry between Caine and Law as they deliver their lines with stinging effect. Sometimes the words take on two or three meanings leading the viewer to wonder, what exactly are they talking about. We aren't even sure if the characters themselves know what is going on.
If "Sleuth" makes any mistakes it is in the last act of the film. A homosexual undertone is played between the two men which I found unnecessary. It takes the film in a different direction. Although one has to wonder, how serious is the offer, since both men are about manipulation. But I would have preferred either greater explanation in this development or eliminating it from the screenplay altogether. But, by the time this happens, you'll have so much fun watching the film, you'll forgive the film for its only flaw.
The film, it should be mentioned, was nominated for the "Golden Lion" at the Venice Film Festival, where it lost the top prize to Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution".