Caine and Law Play Cat and Mouse
Empire, September 2007
Kenneth Branagh is a director unafraid of swimming in the same waters as classic directors. As a man who's spent most of his career adapting the works of Shakespeare into musical ('Love's Labour's Lost'), witty re-imagining (the upcoming 'As You Like I't) or simply faultless traditional telling ('Hamlet'), he has little fear in putting his own spin on an oft-told story. Which goes part-way to explaining why he leapt at the chance to direct 'Sleuth', a film instantly tagged as a remake due to the existence of Joseph L.Mankiewicz's 1972 movie about a haridresser who's dragged into an increasingly dangerous and criminal game of cat and mouse with the husband of the woman he's sleeping with.
"My experience with the classics has told me that [in revisiting a story] you can't do work that hasn't already been done brilliantly by other people, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it," he says succinctly. Rather than a remake of Mankiewicz's film, Branagh's film is simply another adaptation of Anthony Schaffer's Tony Award-winning play and has drawn together a team of unimpeachable credentials.
The film has been nurtured by Jude Law for over four years. He first persuaded über-playwright Harold Pinter to script and then lured Michael Caine to play the role of the cuckolded murder-mystery writer, a piece of casting notable for the fact that Caine played the role of the young hairdresser in the Mankiewicz movie. In Branagh's film, Law takes that role, albeit changed from barnet-teaser to the mildly less girlie aspiring actor. Branagh was the last on board.
"It was an extraordinary gift," he says. "Do I worry about the stigma of being called a remake? Not really, becuase if a film is good, it is good, regardless of whether it's the first or fourth version of a movie. If it in any way rests lazily on the name of something else that happens to be very good, then it'll be found out very quickly... Michael's presence is testament to the quality of the script. He was initially reluctant to do another film version of 'Sleuth', if it was just a retread or excuse for the gimmick of having an actor do the same role in another part. But he saw the first draft and saw the difference between the characters on the page." Branagh and Pinter's take looks like being a much leaner, tauter take on the story (he says it's an hour shorter that the 140-minute 1972 film), keeping the focus permanently on the sparring men. "There was a sense they were both playing this tennis match against someone really good and they just to both keep lifting their game."
There was another reason Branagh was so eager to direct this film, his first contemporary movie since 1995's 'In The Bleak Midwinter'. "It was such a joy to be able to sit in the room with the writer. It's always so difficult to get Shakespeare on the phone."