"Sleuth" Discovers Joy of Verbal Vehemence

Boston Herald, 18 October 2007
By James Verniere

In "Sleuth," Alfie meets Alfie.

A cunning, theatrical whirligig, "Sleuth" may be one of those creations that can breathe only on a stage. On a big screen, it flops around and suffocates. A second screen adaptation of Anthony Shafferís hit 1970 play, the film pits a rich, detective novelist (Michael Caine) against a much younger cad (Jude Law) who has taken away the older manís trophy wife.

The film also marks the union of the original screen "Alfie" (screen legend Caine) with Jude Law, whose work in the title role in a recent "Alfie" remake was widely panned.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh ("As You Like It," etc.) and adapted by the esteemed English playwright Harold Pinter, this "Sleuth" remains a mano a mano cat-and-mouse game of diabolically clever proportions. But some of its sleight-of-hand and much of its homoerotic frissons frankly are dated.

As Caine and Law get into each otherís faces and gaze into one anotherís eyes, you may be inclined to think, kiss already and get it over with. You may also notice Caine has a much bigger head and find yourself wondering what color Lawís elaborately coiffed hair is supposed to be.

This was not the case in the 1972 film version featuring Laurence Olivier and, yes, a younger Michael Caine in the role now played by Law (since Law is also a producer of this remake we must assume heís cinematically stalking Caine).

Got all that? This is to say that "Sleuth" has pedigree and breeding to spare, and this new version is not without its pleasures. The Tudor country manor of the original has been supplanted by a high-tech, minimalist chamber of horrors.

If my instinct is correct, one of the homeís modern sculptures is a tribute to Shafferís "Wicker Man" screenplay. As we enter a series of increasingly hideous rooms, Caineís Andrew Wyke and Lawís Milo Tindle go at it with verbal hammer and tongs. This is, of course, Pinterís forte.

Andrew continually belittles Miloís Italian heritage -- "Youíre a kind of half-breed, arenít you" -- and refers to him as a hairdresser despite the younger manís claim to be an actor. For his part, Milo rubs in the age references and impotency insults. After 90 or so minutes of this two-person verbal torture-athon in enclosed spaces, I felt I needed a stroll in a park.

Audiences for this sort of thing may not be as willing to suspend disbelief concerning various plot twists as they once were. Similarly, Miloís willingness to go along with a scheme to steal jewels may no longer ring true. But itís worth the price of admission to see the veteran Caine take Lawís measure and to hear Pinterís murderous tirades recited by these two actors.

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