Mind-twisting Fun Turns Nasty in "Sleuth"

Free Press, 2 November 2007
By Terry Lawson

If Joseph Mankiewicz's 1972 movie of Anthony Shaffer's play "Sleuth" is remembered at all these days, it may be as part of the answer to a trivia question: What are the two movies whose entire casts were nominated for Academy Awards? ("Give 'Em Hell Harry" was the other).

"Sleuth" the play and the movie were styled as the swinging London version of the Agatha Christie drawing-room mystery. The film version starred Laurence Olivier as the successful but cuckolded author who lures his wife's brash younger lover, played by Michael Caine, into a cleverly loaded trap.

In the remake, Caine is Andrew Wyke, the debonair and condescending older writer, while Jude Law -- who previously starred in the remake of Caine's breakthrough film, "Alfie" -- takes over the role as the penniless but crafty actor Milo Tindle.

Adding to its allure is a restyled screenplay by the great playwright Harold Pinter, directed by Kenneth Branagh, who obviously enjoys a mind-twisting mystery.

All is well and wickedly amusing for the first half of Branagh's and Pinter's update, whose all-important setting has been moved from a leafy English manor decorated with antique games and puzzles to a super-sleek architectural showpiece, with the surveillance cameras woven into the minimalist design.

Andrew is well-prepared for Milo's arrival, pouring his drink of preference even before it is requested, and casually but assuredly declaring his authority over his would-be replacement, making sport not only of Milo's ethnic and humble heritage but also of the notion that Milo's love for Andrew's wife will somehow overcome Milo's inability to keep her in the luxury to which she is currently accustomed. This is well illustrated by a tour of her closet, which contains items of apparel whose individual cost is more than Milo's annual income.

Andrew offers a deal, one that will involve Milo pulling off a victimless crime, and being rewarded with both the wife and a sizable amount of maintenance money. To say anything beyond that would spoil the fun, but in this case there is not that much fun to be had. What was once playfully arch now turns nasty, and what was subtly expressed in the original -- a whiff of homoerotic excitement in the proceedings -- has been made explicit by Pinter, who apparently believes we shouldn't be allowed to suss out things on our own.

We're left with two suitably hammy performances by Caine and Law, who do not forget they are actors playing actors, and a production design that must have kept the lighting people doing some ingenious plotting of their own.

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