San Francisco Chronicle, 19 October 2007
Playwright Anthony Shaffer crammed "Sleuth" full of gimmicks. So were Shaffer still around, he surely would have approved of the gimmicky casting in a movie remake of his 1970 play about a series of increasingly nasty confrontations between a cuckolded husband and his wife's young lover.
Michael Caine, who played the other man in the original "Sleuth," opposite Laurence Olivier, now assumes Olivier's role of Andrew - a rich and famous crime novelist whose money can't buy back his wife's affections - and Jude Law appears as the cocky rival, Milo.
The artifice works better than the filmmakers might have imagined. His face jowly and lined, Caine has lost none of his magnetism, and his Andrew rails against evidence of any loss of virility. It's a naked performance with a special poignancy for those who have watched Caine age onscreen.
But Shaffer, who adapted the 1972 version himself, surely would be less than thrilled by the post-modern, minimalist interpretation given to his best-known work, and understandably so. For one thing, it's been cut by more than a third, eliminating the long discourses and over-the-top game playing between the competitors that made the first "Sleuth" such a campy delight. The sight of Caine's Milo in a clown suit (one of many humiliations Andrew inflicts on him) alone was worth the price of admission.
A cat-and-mouse game is still afoot in "Sleuth," but it's sleeker and a lot less fun. Instead of rambling soliloquies, screenwriter Harold Pinter supplies the characters with lines that are crisp and, well, Pinteresque. "We're in love," Milo says attempting to convince Andrew to grant his wife a divorce. "You're in love," the betrayed spouse spits back, making it sound like a social disease.
From the moment Milo's car is picked up on an elaborate computer-operated security system in Andrew's mansion in the English countryside, there's no doubt you're in the 21st century. Before she strayed, his wife decorated the labyrinth place in chrome and hard surfaces without a single chair one could sink into. A room is devoted to Andrew's thrillers, in English and foreign editions, arranged on state-of-the-art display shelves. Various controls change the lighting, make doors go up and down and open a safe, the contents of which provide a key plot point.
Director Kenneth Branagh uses his camera to accentuate the manse's coldness and keep you removed from the protagonists, often shot in profile, each sizing the other up.
Branagh has no more success than his predecessor, Joseph Mankiewicz, in making you forget that "Sleuth" began life as a play. Never more than two actors appear onscreen at any one time and, although the three acts are artfully merged together, you can tell where the intermissions were.
A paucity of cast members isn't necessarily a bad thing, depending on who they are. Caine and Law make a combustible pair as they take turns at one-upmanship, the details of which are best left a surprise. Andrew deliberately gets Milo's name and choice of drink wrong and keeps referring to him as a hairdresser instead of the actor he presents himself as. (This is an in-joke - Milo styled hair in the original "Sleuth.")
Pinter's introduction of a homoerotic element spices things up. Law often shows an androgynous quality - this may be why he has yet to make it as a Hollywood leading man - so it's hardly surprising that Andrew would come on to Milo. But is the solicitation for real or another attempt to mortify his guest?