'Sleuth' Remake Fails to Last the Course

Daily Yomiuri, 29 February 2008
By Stephen Taylor

For a film with such a high-caliber cast, why does this remake of Anthony Shaffer's stage play, "Sleuth", fail to hit the mark? Director Kenneth Branagh has been nominated for Academy Awards, while the actors who play the two main characters, Michael Caine and Jude Law, have both made their fair share of creditable movies over the years.

Having said that, it should be said that the pair have both produced some turkeys in their time, too. Law's "The Holiday" springs to mind, while you could take your pick of several efforts that Caine put his name to in the 1970s and '80s.

But with a screenplay written by Harold Pinter one would have thought that all the ingredients were there for both of them to offer a fresh take on the original movie, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1972, especially as Caine played the young hairdresser Milo Tindle opposite Laurence Olivier's Andrew Wyke in that version.

With the passage of time, Caine has passed the baton of youth on to Law and assumed the role of Wyke, an old, lonely and seemingly successful writer who invites Tindle (Law) to his house, deep in the English countryside, for a "chat" about the young man's affair with his estranged wife.

The film starts well, with some clever interplay between Wyke and Tindle, and the unfolding plot is fascinating. The old novelist makes Tindle an offer that he believes will not only benefit the two men but also the woman in whom they both share an interest.

Of course, there are twists and the story becomes a psychological game of cat-and-mouse between them that could have taken many turns over the duration of the movie. Unfortunately, the plot begins to flag shortly after the arrival of a brusque, beer-drinking policeman -- Inspector Doppler -- at the house, purportedly there to investigate the disappearance of Tindle. His character is played very convincingly, but my hopes for a dramatic final act to the film were dashed as it fizzles out like a cheap firework on bonfire night.

Up to that point there was an element of chemistry between the two protagonists that was gripping at times, but the film's denouement is played out with very little tension, especially considering the long build-up through which the audience has had to sit. By the end of their discourse in the last third of the film, I cared little for the fate of either of them.

Stage plays can be difficult to adapt to the big screen at the best of times and remakes are particularly hazardous with few improvements on the original. The remakes of two of Caine's highly-regarded films from the '60s, "The Italian Job" in 2003 and, a year later, Alfie -- with Law reprising another Caine part in the title role -- are two movies that did not require updating.

"Sleuth", with minimal setting and heavy emphasis on dialog, promises so much early on with a fascinating plot and occasionally twists and turns that will surprise those unfamiliar with the story but, ultimately, one can't help feeling that this is one remake that should have been a much better film.

The movie opens on March 7.

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