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There are filmgoers who delight in the use of words such as “codswallop” in a script, while others have their fun scoffing when they see piles of the stuff itself littered throughout one. Viewers for whom both conditions apply will have a difficult time judging Sleuth, a cat-and-mouse, mano a mano, battle-of-the-wits, gotcha! and gotcha again! remake of a 1972 film starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine as, respectively, an older-but-suave codger and a poor-but-charming pretty thing who’s unabashedly stealing his wife. Here, Caine is the codger and Jude Law is the youthful tosser. It’s the second time Law has taken over a Caine chestnut. (Alfie’s 2004 redo was the first. Presumably Beyond the Poseidon Adventure is next.)
Sleuth is, above all else, a theater-lover’s movie. The first film was based on a play and adapted by the playwright, Anthony Shaffer; this adaptation is by another stage scribe, Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, and directed by Shakespeare obsessive Kenneth Branagh. The pair slashed the original’s running time, with Pinter disposing much of the dialogue. Still, the drama crackles like the best of Broadway: Pinter’s clipped rhythms, the confined action (often nonaction), the Spartan yet gorgeously übermodern and otherworldly set that’s practically a character in itself, all vacuum your attention and give you the feeling that maybe you should have unwrapped that candy before the show began. Of course, there’s also the matter of the thespian master class that happens to be taking place within the story’s frame. Like this year’s Interview, Sleuth shows what good actors can do when they’re given a lot of lines and little else. But unlike Interview, which was directed by and starred Steve Buscemi, Sleuth feels less like an exercise.
The plot is character-driven. Andrew Wyke (Caine) is a wealthy crime novelist who’s aware that his wife is cheating on him. He invites her lover, hairdresser/aspiring actor Milo Tindle (Law), to his heavily surveilled estate for a chat. After some small—and, naturally, witty—talk, Andrew gets right to it: “I understand you’re fucking my wife.” Milo doesn’t flinch. “We fuck each other,” he says. “That’s what people do.” So that’s how it’s gonna be—a lot of you-don’t-scare-me cockiness lurking just beneath polite British veneers. Until Andrew decides to make Milo a deal. The scarlet woman, Marguerite (seen only in a photo), is accustomed to a life of luxury, Andrew says, which Milo obviously can’t afford to provide. So there are some jewels stashed in the safe of Andrew’s mansion. Andrew has arranged a fence to buy them, but he needs Milo to break into his home and stage a fake robbery. Then Milo gets the spoils—including the woman—while Andrew gets the insurance, and everyone lives happily.
The proposition clearly belongs in a Bad Idea Jeans commercial, but Milo goes along anyway, with a glint in his eye. It’s not giving anything away to say that things turn into what Andrew calls “a game…with a knife and a gun.” (And the woman, by the way, isn’t nearly as important as their rivalry.) There’s a bigger twist, though, midway through, and this is when the film’s serious flaws start burbling to the surface. In this particular case, it’s likely that even those who haven’t seen the original movie won’t be fooled by a key wrench in Andrew’s plan. From there, inconsistencies in the characters that seemed forgivable veer more wildly as their I’ll-one-up-you-but-good relationship escalates. Most egregiously, while sometimes—often, even—these men are sharp and confident, they’ll suddenly turn into dopes flummoxed and unraveled by the other player’s (usually waaaay obvious) move. It’s refreshing to see Caine play vulnerable, and here he sobs and begs (though regally, if possible) and looks as much a lonely old man as a sophisticated one. You’ll buy his performance, just not Andrew’s reaction. Law is a worthy match, though he’s in a similarly tough spot trying to inhabit a character who’s charming/bratty, warm/cold, and stupid/smart.
Branagh’s direction ranges from hyperstylized to theatrically spare, but it’s nearly always more interesting than the actual conflict between the characters. He chooses to view many scenes through the house’s surveillance cameras; at one point, we watch the black and white video feed of Andrew answering his front door on his flat-screen TV. (Less effective is the overused, somewhat ridiculous one-eyed zoom.) Mainly, though, Branagh blocks with the simplicity of a stage director, the actors merely standing across from each other as they tear into their lines, and from these setups come the most thrilling, seductive moments. You may become enamored, but all the game-playing here will likely make your love go cold.