What’s It All About, Anyway?
New York Magazine, 15 October 2007
Anthony Shaffers "Sleuth" was my first Broadway show, and as a graceless 11-year-old longing to wear a smoking jacket and speak with an English accent, I thought it was surely the most devilishly sophisticated thing ever written. Aging crime novelist Andrew Wyke directs his wife's young lover, Milo Tindle, to mess up his manor house to make it look as if a burglar has been there; he says to make it "convincing but not Carthaginian. Convincing but not Carthaginian"! Would I ever be able to talk like that? I saw the 1972 movie with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine over and over and memorized every line, which is why I can tell you that barely a phrase of it remains in Harold Pinter's adaptation for the new film directed by Kenneth Branagh. Am I outraged? No, my pretensions have evolved. An 11-year-old's idea of devilish sophistication is a 48-year-old's idea of arch juvenilia. I'm a Pinter man now. I want chill sexual menace and four-letter words and antagonists who hiss in each other's faces and use pauses not pansified purple prose to emasculate. I want my drama convincing and Carthaginian.
Michael Caine now takes the role of Wyke, and there isn't a trace of his old co-star's fruity exuberance. He plays it low-key and simmering, with the twisted sexual sadism of his inquisitor in "Quills". This Wyke doesn't live in a plush old manse filled with circusy bric-a-brac; his house is a starkly lit, high-tech modernist horror with Dali-esque stairs that lead nowhere and ubiquitous surveillance cameras. The original, likable Milo, a hairdresser who comes, polite and somewhat abashed, to ask Wyke to grant his wife a divorce, is played by Jude Law as an aspiring actor who uses his slim prettiness to taunt his wattled host. It's hard to have a dog in this fight.
"Sleuth" is Pinter lite, but that's not a bad thing: The characters get to the point a lot faster than usual in his work. Shaffer's Wyke pours a drink and says, with mock casualness, "I understand you want to marry my wife", and Milo chokes, disarmed by the sudden frankness. Pinter - in the closest thing to a Shaffer formulation - says, "I understand you're fucking my wife." "Yes, she's fucking me". With these two, what's afoot isn't a game: Right off the bat they're drawing blood and increasingly thirsty for more. As a man of both the theater and the cinema, Branagh has canny instincts; he knows how to shoot from all over the place and yet maintain what classical conductors call "the long line". The fever builds, as does the homoeroticism, leavened only by the occasional in-joke, like the Alfie of the remakes pleading to the original, "What's it all about?" "What's it all about?" might be asked of the new "Sleuth" too. Shaffer's play had a political context that, however crude, gave it some urgency. At the height of the counterculture, he was trying to expose the snobbish, reactionary, patriarchal bigotry and xenophobia at the heart of the drawing-room English whodunit. Branagh and Pinter don't have any larger purpose. The project was developed by Law, who clearly relishes the chance to go gaga but doesn't have the theatrical technique to transform when it's required. The new twist ending is clunkier than the old one. I think the movie works best if you know the original and have a taste for goofy revisionism - say, Hamlet as a giant Hawaiian luau with the final duel on surfboards, or Paul Anka doing a finger-snapping "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Actually, Anka does do a terrific "Smells Like Teen Spirit" - I bet Branagh could make a hell of a video.