Anthony Shaffer's 1970 Tony Award-winning "Best Play" gets a second screen adaptation in Kenneth Branagh's film Sleuth. Creatively arrested Hollywood has made even the mainstream filmgoer sensitive to remakes, but the majority of Branagh's output has, after all, involved revisiting already ubiquitous material: the works of Shakespeare. And yet if Sleuth is not a remake of the 1972 film starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine), it isn't a straightforward adaptation of Shaffer's play either. Though much of the play arrives intact, what screenwriter Harold Pinter has done constitutes a rewrite rather than a remounting.
That's a good thing, because all justifications aside, the highly regarded '72 Sleuth hardly needs a remake: it holds up just fine, thanks. Indeed, Pinter-izing Shaffer's gleefully brisk genre piece might seem to some as misguided as "pimping" a Rolls Royce when one ought to leave well enough alone. But the contributions of a Nobel Prize-winning playwright change the game and, while not necessarily elevating the original material, certainly enrich it with a new and distinctive philosophical and stylistic voice.
Hired-hand Branagh shepherds an intriguing cast led by Caine (returning to play Olivier's role) and Jude Law (in the role originated on screen by Caine). When Law's young houseguest inquires of urbane host Caine, "What's it all about?" it plays as a nod to Law not long ago inheriting Caine's signature role of Alfie. The elder actor plays thriller novelist Andrew Wyke; known as "The Master of Menace," the writer laces every pleasantry with silky threats. The understandably wary young actor Milo Tindle—Law's role—would do well to heed the titles of Wyke's novels, such as "Rat in a Trap" and "The Spider in the Bed." Around here, one lets down his guard at his peril.
"Here" is a sleek, high-tech, high-security country estate that's about as homey as the Tate Modern. From the moment Tindle steps up to the front entrance, the territory becomes a contending ground for dominant masculinity. The supposedly civilized purpose for the men's meeting is to discuss Andrew's divorce of Milo's current squeeze, Maggie. Of course, Wyke has no intention of making matters easy, and the psychological warfare begins with an immediate, metaphoric comparison of their penis sizes (via observation of their respective cars: Wyke's is bigger).
After Wyke launches into a braggadocious accounting of his successful authorship, he begins to impugn Milo's stupidity and cut closer to the bone of his heterosexual male identity, calling him a "hairdresser" (he's an actor). Andrew happily abuses his upper-hand status, since the captive Milo can't bear to lose face. When Milo suggests that Andrew's proposal to make Maggie wait five years for a divorce is "pure spite," Andrew proposes a plan that he purports to be mutually beneficial. The series of mind games which follows takes the audience on a twisty ride of criminal trickery and emotional cruelty. Things are rarely what they seem, a notion that Branagh underlines by secreting Andrew's ultra-modern home—a monument to himself—behind an elegantly old-world facade redolent of the 1972 film's setting.
Branagh is a smart choice for the material, in his combination of theatrical instinct and cinematic muscularity: the approach is stylish and inventive without ever detracting from the main attraction of the leading performances. Quite the contrary, Caine and Law are allowed to run with roles as good as an actor can hope to play. Pinter's dialogue is rich with both intention and heady ambiguity, and Caine answers it with another brilliant performance. Law nearly proves Caine's equal, though the role of Milo has unique demands that the younger actor fails to master (this failure may prove inexcusable for some viewers). Still, in the first and third acts, Law's keen focus, cold-sweat nerves and sexuality add immeasurably to the play's "dance of death" atmosphere.
Pinter's Sleuth--even more so than the original--demands repeat viewings fully to absorb its meanings and possibilities, to sort out its lies, truths, and half-truths. Which are the honest responses and which are the bluffs? Who are these men when they're at home? At one point, it even seems possible that the whole scenario is a sex-fantasy role play by gay lovers...in fact, it's a possibility Pinter likely would refuse to rule out. Certainly, the film's third act (Pinter's innovation from the two-act original) more overtly pursues sexual politics than Shaffer's original. As Wyke says, "The shortest way to a man's heart is humiliation. It binds you together."
The script includes a verbal motif that reminds us of what binds the film's four central talents together: "I want to show you something." It's the impulse of theatre ("the seeing place") and motion pictures, and though Sleuth never ventures off of its country estate, these artists have plenty to show and tell.
A movie as sleek as Sleuth deserves a format as sleek as Blu-Ray. Though the film no doubt looks good on DVD (and the identical Blu-Ray bonus features are in standard definition, not hi-def), the film's thing, and it looks and sounds magnificent: no surprise for a brand-new movie shined up for home video by Sony. A bit of video noise intrudes briefly during color-flooded scenes (like the climactic wash of red light), but the transfer is otherwise sparkling, with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track to match.
Sleuth is the sort of film that, more than most, is reliant on star-powered talent in front of and behind the camera. The stars, director, and writer all have legions of fans, and all four men participate in a prize package of bonus features. First is a very entertaining screen-specific commentary with Kenneth Branagh and Michael Caine: Branagh gives his typically excitable director's perspective, winningly interrupted by whatever crosses Caine's mind. The two prove their studied commitment to the project with their highly detailed observations about camera angles, shot selection, and gestures. A second commentary features Jude Law recorded separately: though the track is understandably less dynamic, it allows Law to speak for the record without taking away any time from the other two men. Taken together, the commentaries represent an unusually thorough oral history about the making of a film.
Next is "A Game of Cat & Mouse: Behind the Scenes of Sleuth" (15:00), a concise featurette that includes some behind-the-scenes glimpses as well as comments from Law, Caine, Branagh and, crucially, Pinter. One wishes for a longer interview with the celebrated playwright/screenwriter, but we'll take what we can get. "Inspector Black: Make-Up Secrets Revealed" (2:34) allows make-up artist Eileen Kastner-Delago to itemize all the pieces and paint involved in one unfortunate actor's four-and-a-half-hour application. Rounding out the disc are previews for Steep, Saawariya, The Jane Austen Book Club, Across the Universe, 30 Days of Night, We Own the Night, Closer, and The Holiday, as well as the ubiquitous "Blu-Ray Disc is High-Definition!" trailer. Rabid fans of Caine, Branagh, Pinter and Law (or any combination thereof) cannot afford to pass up this love letter to theatrical talent.
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