“I have only made this letter so long,” Blaise Pascal famously wrote in his Lettres provinciales, “because I have not had time to make it shorter.” The cinematic re-creators of Sleuth--screenwriter Harold Pinter and director Kenneth Branagh--have had 35 years to improve upon Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1972 version and, if nothing else, they have corrected its greatest flaw: length. Mankiewicz’s film ran to nearly two hours and twenty minutes--an absurd duration for a clever but ephemeral drawing-room mystery. Anthony Shaffer, who adapted the original script from his own hit play, was evidently unwilling to kill his babies.
Pinter suffers no such compunction. Despite the addition of an entirely new third act, his screenplay whizzes along: Filmgoers will be scraping the sticky stuff from their shoes and making for the exits in under an hour and a half. Gone from the earlier adaptation are many of its broader sillinesses--the extended cavorting in a clown suit, the animatronic mannequins, the repetitious references to fictional detective “St. John Lord Merridew,” etc.
In their place, unfortunately, Pinter adds sillinesses that don’t even recognize themselves as silly. This is a film that imagines that if its characters utter the word “fuck” frequently enough and trade an escalating series of schoolyard sexual taunts, it must be somehow dark and daring. It’s not. It’s an adolescent’s idea of a grown-up movie.
The new Sleuth’s premise and protagonists are unchanged: Andrew Wyke is a wealthy mystery writer who invites his wife’s young lover, Milo Tindle, out to his country estate for a little chat. In a likeable bit of stunt-casting, Michael Caine, who played Tindle in the original (to Laurence Olivier’s Wyke) has ripened into the elder role; his Tindle is Jude Law--the second time, following the remake of Alfie, that Law has inherited one of Sir Michael’s early roles. Wyke tells Tindle that he’s welcome to the wife, but adds that he fears she will prove too expensive for the young man to keep. As he doesn’t want her crawling back to him in a few months’ time, Wyke proposes a solution: Tindle will “steal” some valuable jewels from the house and fence them abroad. Tindle will get the lady and the swag, Wyke will get the insurance money, and everyone will wind up happy.
Except they won’t, as anyone not named “
Sadly, Pinter and Branagh seem a little too eager to flaunt their own. To begin with, they have altered Wyke’s home, the setting of virtually the entire film, from a baronial country manor full of games and bric-a-brac to a high-tech mausoleum so stuffed with remote-controlled contrivances--ubiquitous surveillance cameras, slab-like secret doors, a gas fireplace worthy of a crematorium, swiveling light-projectors on the ceiling--that Bill Gates and Maxwell Smart would be sick with envy. This may seem no more than a modest updating, but it immediately signals a shift in tone, away from the quaint, Agatha Christie atmosphere of the original and toward something more entombed and infernal. The change is immediately apparent in the dialogue as well, where the awkward icebreaker Shaffer put in Wyke’s mouth, “I understand you want to marry my wife,” has been sharpened to “I understand you’re fucking my wife.”
Pinter and Branagh clearly intend such alterations to make their film fiercer. But rendering the original’s sexual subtext as actual text serves mostly serves to defang it. The very first scene is a bit of (deliberately) comic Freudian yardsticking about the relative size of Wyke and Tindle’s cars: “Is that yours?”; “Yes”; “The little one?”; “Yes”; “Not the big one?”; “No”; “That’s right, the big one’s mine.” The problem is that, even as the film darkens and lives are threatened, the back-and-forth remains comparably juvenile. When Tindle fears for his life at gunpoint, his emasculation is made so explicit as to be laughable: Whimpering with terror, he promises that he not only doesn’t love Wyke’s wife, but indeed doesn’t like women at all, cataloguing the alternative genders and species--I kid you not! sheep, pigs, you name it--with which he would prefer to copulate. Who would plead for his life in this way? And, more to the point, what vengeful adult would take real satisfaction in his enemy declaring a false attraction to livestock? It’s a fourteen-year-old’s idea of abject humiliation.
The tables turn, of course, and turn again, and thanks to Pinter’s abbreviated screenplay the swerves are frequently sharp. Both Wyke and Tindle show they can shift from snarling to sniveling in 90 seconds flat, and then back again if need be. The pity is that there aren’t many emotional gradations in between. The overheated interactions that characterize Pinter’s screenplay can be a necessity in live theatre, where a half-smile or quiet comment may not be evident to the folks back in row W. But having Jude Law alternate between grinning like the Joker and sobbing like a Greek tragedian is an unnecessary (and unwelcome) indulgence on the big screen. It’s not merely that this new Sleuth resembles a play (so did the original, after all), it’s that it resembles exactly the kind of play--over-determined, under-dramatized, self-serious--that causes so very many people not to like plays.
Branagh’s direction hardly helps matters. Befitting his time on the other side of the camera, Branagh has typically been content to give his actors space to do their thing. Here, however, perhaps egged on by Pinter’s excesses, he intrudes with uncharacteristic audacity. The result is a primer in pretension: The far-too-close close-ups, the showy shots from directly above or through venetian blinds, the promiscuous use of surveillance-camera “footage,” the peculiar lighting effects. (Is there any conceivable reason Wyke’s lights would be programmed to project twirling pinwheels on houseguests?)
It’s all a tremendous waste of Sleuth’s celebrated performers. Given the opportunity, Caine has shown himself more capable of conveying a kind of understated evil than perhaps any other actor of his generation. In the addictively sleazy Get Carter, for instance, or Neil Jordan’s marvelous Mona Lisa, Caine deadens his gaze, draining his features of any hint of human empathy. But Sleuth is far too unruly to permit such subtle effects, and Caine’s inevitably hammy performance is one he’ll likely want to forget. Law has yet to show that he’s capable of such onscreen malignity--in the comparably nasty Closer, Clive Owen ran circles around him--but he, too, is better in a minor key. Worse, he fails to pull off the crucial deception of the second act (at least to my eyes, though perhaps not to those that have never seen the original and thus aren’t aware of the coming twist).
Which brings us to the film’s greatest misstep, Pinter’s new third act. It is both obvious and obtuse, throwing psychological plausibility to the wind and, once again, making the implicit thuddingly, boringly explicit. (Among other shortcomings, it probably merits a phone call from the attorneys of whoever owns the rights to 1982’s Deathtrap, another small-cast whodunit based on a stage play in which Michael Caine plays a mystery writer with rather ambivalent ardors.) In its way, however, it’s a fitting conclusion to this flabby film. Sleuth is that most irritating of cinematic species, a hackneyed movie that thinks it’s risqué, a sheep in wolf’s clothing.
CHRISTOPHER ORR is a senior editor at The New Republic.