Film review by: Witney Seibold
Some of the in-jokes about “Sleuth:”
● One of the character’s off-screen wives is played – in both this “Sleuth” and the 1972 original – by an actress named Eve Channing. As Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed the original, astute filmgoers will recognize the actress’ name as a combination of Eve Harrington and Margo Channing, Anne Baxter’s and Bette Davis’ characters from “All About Eve.”
● In the 1972 “Sleuth,” the older man was played by Laurence Olivier, the younger by Michael Caine. In 2007, the younger man is played by Jude Law and the older man by… Michael Caine.
● Jude Law also played the Michael Caine role in a remake of “Alfie” (1966, 2004).
● Michael Caine once suffered from an affliction, one that strongly afflict certain actors (Gene Hackman also once had it), that caused him to appear in front of any camera that was turned on. He appeared in 20 films from 1985-1992. He was soon cured. Jude Law appeared in six films in 2004 alone, and hosted “Saturday Night Live” that year.
All these arborous-like coincidences aside, though, “Sleuth” does not feel derivative or tired. This is largely due to the four names writ large on the film’s posters: the two lead actors, Law and Caine, the director Kenneth Branagh (and thank goodness he’s still working), and screenwriter Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize winner. In fact, these four names are the only ones that appear at the beginning of the film, surpassing the usual cinematographers and costume designers.
Pinter lends no particular wit to the characters, but is able to muster up a prickly, clipped banter for them to toss at one another. We meet both men in the film, and we see immediately that they are both on the make, and both trying to play one another. Hence, every line they speak has two or three meanings and an unknown number of intentions.
But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself. The story: Crime novelist Andrew Wyke (Caine) invites out-of-work actor Milo Tindle (Law) to his out-of-the-way ultra-modern house for a few words. Tindle has been having an affair with Wyke’s wife, and Tindle wants Wyke to divorce her. Wyke also wants to divorce her, but is too much of a conniving narcissist to allow things go down so easily; think of Caine’s role from “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” but evil and vain and a sociopath. Wyke says he will agree to the divorce if Tindle break into this very house – right now – and steal his prize jewels, worth close to a million pounds.
There is of course a twist, and then another, and then about seven more, before we reach the end of the film. The interplay between these men, though, is such that the twists don’t feel cheap or forced; we’re not being jerked around. We’re being led through a moral labyrinth by two men who both claim to know their way, only to discover that they are both minotaurs.
Branagh, theatrical at heart, lends an uncharacteristically cinematic quality to the film. He puts his actors in silhouette, hides the camera in the ceiling, and allows the house to shift and mutate right before us. He doesn’t quite nail the sheer coldness of the ultra-modern technology (all controlled by Wyke’s everpresent remote control buttons), but comes close enough. For a film that is essentially just two actors in a single room, it is no easy task to shoot, and Branagh pulls it off with aplomb.
Some of the themes of “Sleuth” are very tired, and that might be its biggest flaw. How many times have we seen, in film, theater, or otherwise, the thought of wealth stripping someone of their moral character? But, hey, it is a remake after all.
At the end of the day, it’s not original. But, luckily, it’s skilled enough and technically beautiful enough that it doesn’t really need to be; we’re too busy enjoying the skill, the performances, and the sheer monstrousness of the two men on screen.