Round the Bend
PopMatters, 12 October 2007
The first image in the latest adaptation of "Sleuth" is a surveillance monitor. Looking out on the grand graveled driveway belonging to wealthy novelist Andrew Wyke (Michael Caine), it observes his visitor, hairdresser and aspiring actor Milo Tindle (Jude Law), as he pulls his car to a perfect angle, opposite his host’s. As you watch, from Wyke’s perspective, Milo rings the bell and waits, dropping his head, glancing away, then looking at the camera.
A slick-tricky elision of shots brings you from outside to inside, as the camera follows Milo’s entrance from overhead, sliding over the doorway and walls and transitioning from surveillance-monitor grainy monotone to crisp color. Or, more accurately, the sorts of color that a man concerned with displaying his severely good taste would allow in his décor: silvers, blacks, and whites, with occasional primary splashes for dramatic effect.
This start of the film—whose previous incarnations include Anthony Shaffer’s 1970 play, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1972 movie, and is now rescripted by Harold Pinter and directed by Kenneth Branagh—is all about who’s watching whom, obviously. But even if this suggests a familiar power dynamic, the film is also the technologies of watching. The monitor distorts and also frames the action, the watchee is aware of the watcher, and the dynamic between the two is ever mediated by you, ultimate observer. This last position is especially precious in this instance, as the film seems to be working overtime to preclude your emotional investment in either of the men before you. This distance makes the watching somewhat abstract, an exercise in self-awareness.
This isn’t necessarily mesmerizing. The essential gimmick of the film may not be known to viewers who haven’t seen the first film (in which Caine played the part now played by Law, with his part played by Laurence Olivier). But the gimmicky-ness of the project is visible immediately. The game the men play involves—ostensibly—Wyke’s wife, Marguerite. The fact that she is "played" by a made-up person called "Eve Channing," who appears only a painting, though she is best characterized by her closet full of clothes and accessories demonstrates the tedious point: the woman is irrelevant except as an object of male competition. (It’s not such a clever ploy as it thinks it is, then or now.)
Milo has arrived to ask for a divorce for his new beloved, as he wants to marry her ("She thinks you’re round the bend," he taunts). Wyke, pretending to be cool and hurt and angry and sharp, insists that she will never be true, because she likes precisely the life that Milo, so un-rich, cannot provide her. As they discuss, endlessly and in the sort of clipped tones signaling they are witty. Milo suggests he brings something else she desires. Wyke tut-tuts. The camera frames Milo’s beautiful, shifty eyes, then Wyke’s weathered, odious face. They agree on a scheme, whereby Milo will pretend to break into the house, steal Marguerite’s exquisite necklace (for which Wyke has arranged a fence): Milo gets the girl, the divorce and the much-needed cash, Wyke gets insurance money.
You see what’s wrong with this picture instantly, but Milo appears to go along. But the "appears" is crucial, as the film is premised on who can outsmart whom, and so, who can “own” whom. Each exchange has the ring of deceit, and yet they go on—and on and on (the film feels longer than its 86 minutes).
The sets—Wyke’s downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs—are perfectly architectural, stark and forbidding, but oh so expensive. The plot, however, is increasingly baroque and tiresome. Branagh’s version brings roaring to the surface the homoerotic business that passed as cunning in earlier iterations. While the physical threats and abuses lay out their mutual attraction in utterly familiar ways—guns, knives, uncomfortably close tęte-ŕ-tętes—Sleuth piles on the point, going so far as to dress Milo in a woman’s coat, so that Law might show off his lovely androgyny.
Milo is weirdly lovely, as well as catty and nasty and demanding and cruel. As he and Wyke perform a ritualistic intergenerational competition, the film looks on (and so do you), as if it’s remotely interesting. What is interesting, if not exactly news, is the precision of the casting. As everyone has heard too often, Law is the New Caine, or Caine was the original Law (see: the Alfies). Just watching the actors—as this film invites you to do—you see that their physical appearances are both very different and remarkably alike. It has to do with class markers, age, and vagaries of the market. At the same time, they evince their eras’ values, commercial and, to a point, ethical: Law’s more conventional prettiness suggests he lives in a more cautious moment (despite and because of all the hoo-ha about sex and violence excesses). Caine’s age makes him venerable and also vulnerable by definition (at that, and, he’s appeared in a million movies).
With or without these nuances, their face-off is repeatedly reduced in Sleuth to perfunctory gotcha moments. And, amid the movie’s many technologies of watching and acting, these tricks are surprisingly unsophisticated.