Before he snagged the lead in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1972 screen version of Anthony Shaffer’s 1970 stage play, Sleuth, Laurence Olivier had, with his customary diplomatic finesse, dismissed the source material as “a piece of piss.” Two movie adaptations later, I’m inclined to agree with that assessment. Still, it’s not hard to fathom the attraction of Shaffer’s long-running West End staple for British audiences of the early 1970s. Five years after John Schlesinger’s rancid Darling wrote off London’s swinging ’60s, Sleuth, with its smart-aleck power plays between two men equally matched only in their craven amorality, set the stage for a fin-de-siècle notable for its narcissism, venality and obsession with control. Though it came wrapped in a fairly rote exposé of English xenophobia and class snobbery, the movie couldn’t conceal its furtive enjoyment of the shallow esprit of an age it claimed to critique. Indeed, the social climber played by Julie Christie in Darling might well have been the model for the woman who comes between her famous-writer husband (Olivier) and her lover, a feckless young Anglo-Italian hairdresser (Michael Caine), who arrives at the writer’s fancy country house for a little tête-à-tête about human property rights.
In his approving review of Mankiewicz’s film (the director’s last, as it turned out), Roger Ebert described the lead character’s head as “like his house, cluttered with ornate artifacts largely without function” — a judgment that might serve nicely for the contents of Kenneth Branagh’s noddle while planning this ferociously arty but vacuous remake, which unclutters the country estate and pares its ensemble down to a slim two-hander that looks as though it were shot in David Geffen’s mansion, with accessories by Escher. Handsomely appointed and utterly pointless, the movie appears to have inspired in its director little more than a burning desire to bludgeon us with upper-case Cinema. Gone are Mankiewicz’s chintz-and-brocade interiors, only to be replaced with aerial shots of gleaming glass, exposed brick, postmodern high tech and other fascist design accessories of the cold-hearted superrich, clinically alternated in steel grays, chilly blues, and black and white.
Security cameras abound, a single slender remote controls everything, and if you haven’t already guessed, the theme is surveillance, as cat chases mouse and vice versa. Caine is grandfathered in as Andrew Wyke, a writer of popular crime novels, while Jude Law (who co-produced) plays Milo Tindle, the cocky young arriviste who bedded Wyke’s pneumatic wife but seems not to have calculated that his lack of more tangible assets may place him at a disadvantage. We are at no such handicap, for Branagh tips his hand in the very first shot of Tindle’s tiny sedan dwarfed by Wyke’s sleek limo in the driveway. Nevertheless, Tindle barrels in demanding a divorce. Wyke responds by suggesting that together they pull off an insurance scam that will rid the older man of the spouse he claims to despise, and pad Tindle’s coffers in the manner to which he would like to become accustomed.
Verbal tennis ensues in clipped micro-clauses made over by screenwriter Harold Pinter. Old, sick, and barricaded behind a knighthood and a Nobel Prize for literature, Pinter tends to get a free pass these days. But, leaving aside two brilliant 1963 film adaptations of his best work, The Caretaker and The Servant, the terse opacity of the dialogue that served his early plays so astringently has never translated well onto the big screen. Caine and Law, two Alfies who can do callow in their sleep, are terrific, and whatever pleasure can be wrung from Sleuth lies in the black comedy of their sinuous cut-and-thrust. But Shaffer’s tired bromides about the potency of wealth and cunning, and the supposedly primal struggle of two males more in love with each other than with the woman they seek to possess, remain in Branagh’s hands little more than a dated pissing contest energized by crude homophobia and misogyny. If nothing else, Sleuth endures as a testament to the precise aim of Lord Olivier’s bullshit detector.
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SLEUTH | Directed by KENNETH BRANAGH | Written by HAROLD PINTER, adapted from the play by ANTHONY SHAFFER | Produced by JUDE LAW, SIMON HALFON, TOM STERNBERG, MARION PILOWSKY, BRANAGH and SIMON MOSELEY | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | ArcLight, The Landmark, Monica 4-Plex, Playhouse 7, Town Center 5