TIFF Review: Sleuth
Cinematical, 6 September 2007
Is there a statute of limitations for 'spoiling' a movie? Is there anyone of passing cultural literacy who does not already know that the great man's dying words spoke of his fondest childhood memory, that the astronaut was on Earth all along, that the low-grade crook was making the whole story up off the bulletin board? And is there a certain point where you can't help but spoil a movie if you're going to talk about it honestly? And what if the movie under consideration is a remake?
Kenneth Branagh's new film of "Sleuth" brings all of those questions to mind. Based on Anthony Shaffer's play, previously filmed in 1972, "Sleuth" starts simple and stays small: The older Andrew Wyke is visited by the younger Milo Tindle. The older man has position, power, privilege; the younger man has none of those things -- but he is sleeping with the older man's wife. The younger man has come to ask the older man to grant his wife a divorce -- and, maybe, see what the old fool's made of. The older man is not willing to grant the divorce -- but, he might as well see what this young bastard's like. In the original 1972 version of Sleuth, Laurence Olivier was the older man, and Michael Caine the younger; now, Caine plays the cuckolded husband and Jude Law the bright young adulterer.
And it's not just stunt casting that sees Caine return; he's good in the part, playing a wealthy and successful author; there's something plush about Caine in this film -- a life of earned privilege has made him soft -- and Law is all lean and hungry angles in his. Director Kenneth Branagh makes their verbal sparring play out like a knife fight with sharp words, and in time the two men come to an understanding. Or do they?
The original Sleuth had a whopper of a twist -- which also wasn't much of a twist at all. It's recreated here, but even if you don't know it, you see it happen long before the reveal. But the movie's not about that twist -- or, rather, it can't be. Instead, Harold Pinter's screenplay adapts Anthony Shaffer's play into an altogether different experience -- class and breeding and sex and Englishness all shoved into a series of sterile rooms to fight it out, poisoned words dripping from their jaws. And Branagh tries to break up the play's staginess -- there's a lot of security camera footage, and high-angle shots of Wyke's sterile, expensive décor -- but he also knows when to sit back and let the actors work with the material; the end result speaks to his roots on the stage and his work on the screen.
"Sleuth" isn't incendiary or ground-breaking; it's a chance to see two very good actors (who also happen to be movie stars) work with very good material under the direction of a very good director. Depending on your standards, that's either not much, or it's plenty. "Sleuth" is light entertainment made by heavy-hitters, and your initial reaction to that seemingly-contradictory fact will probably be the best prediction of whether or not you'll see it, and whether or not you'll enjoy it.