A Dance of Two Men, Twisting and Turning With a Gun That’s More Than a Gun

New York Times, 12 October 2007
By Manohla Dargis

If you like your contempt for humanity served overcooked and oozing fatty blobs of preening, lazy self-regard, you could not improve on Harold Pinter’s redo of the 1970 Anthony Shaffer play “Sleuth,” which Kenneth Branagh has used to remake the 1972 Joseph L. Mankiewicz film of the same title. (Got that?) The result is that what was once insignificant is now insufferable, though, at 86 minutes, almost an hour shorter.

Jude Law stars as Milo Tindle, a hairdresser and sometime actor who’s having an affair with the wife of a famous novelist and full-time sadist, Andrew Wyke, played by Michael Caine. Milo is young, lovely and, because he’s played by the talented Mr. Law, a pleasant screen presence. Andrew is decades older, wattled and grooved and, because he’s played by the talented Mr. Caine, equally fun to watch, even when he’s as badly lighted as he often is here. Both are less pleasing to listen to, largely because they’ve been enlisted to enliven a story reeking of mothballs and sexual panic and designed to titillate the audience by putting its two lab rats into an electrified maze. Zap! Zap! Sizzle!

The new “Sleuth” film follows the general nasty arc of the 1972 screen version, which starred Mr. Caine as the bedroom interloper and Laurence Olivier as his wily match. Milo (inexplicably) visits Andrew’s estate; Andrew (unpersuasively) coaxes Milo into a crime; Milo (unbelievably) retaliates; and so it goes, amid much twisting and turning of the meta-variety sort.

“Tell me,” Andrew asks in Mr. Schaffer’s original play, “would you agree that the detective story is the normal recreation of noble minds?” Milo, or really the playwright, replies, “Perhaps it would have been truer to say that noble minds are the normal recreation of the detective story.” Mr. Pinter more or less recycles these lines, thereby erecting a bridge between him and Agatha Christie, whom, depending on your view, Mr. Shaffer either robbed or parodied.

This version of the film cuts out chunks of complication and inserts surveillance cameras in and around Andrew’s manse, which adds screens within screens (some in green-hued night vision) though nothing of actual thematic interest. The performers tend to deliver the airless, self-consciously synthetic dialogue like untutored violinists dutifully sawing away to the steady tick-tock of a metronome. On occasion there’s a flourish of realism as one or the other approximates a human being rather than a dramatic contrivance. This happens infrequently, mostly when the two men are raising their voices and intimately grappling with the story’s tiresome sexual dynamics, which suggest a link between sadism and homosexual desire. Here a brandished gun comes loaded with symbolic import, not just bullets.

Mr. Branagh can be a fine film actor, but at this point in his screen career it’s safe to say he has no feel or facility for cinema when he’s calling the shots behind the camera. Almost every setup looks wrong: poorly considered, awkwardly realized, ugly. (The cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos has done fine work elsewhere.) Mr. Branagh fiddles with the lights, tilts the camera and hustles his hard-working actors upstairs and down and back again and into an elevator as small as a coffin built for one. He embellishes the screenplay’s every obvious conceit and word, hammering the point until you feel as if you’re trapped inside the elevator with Milo and Andrew, going up and down and up and down, though nowhere in particular.

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