The post-Agatha Christie teases and comforts provided by Anthony Shaffer’s play “Sleuth,” and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1972 film adaptation, have been morphed into a bizarrely contorted facsimile by screenwriter Harold Pinter and helmer Kenneth Branagh. New pic also happens to be titled “Sleuth,” but those who know the original may wonder after awhile if their minds aren’t playing tricks on them. The results will be received with a large, loud yawn by all but the most loyal fans of Pinter and hard-working co-stars Michael Caine and Jude Law, with vid holding a few profitable twists.
Just as Shaffer intended to remodel the creaky Christie model of the English manor mystery into something a bit more au courant for the early ’70s when it first appeared on the West End, so Pinter — possibly the greatest living playwright in the English language — apparently wished to remodel Shaffer’s play. (In the press notes, Pinter says he had never read the play nor seen the film before starting his adaptation.)
Certainly, the original’s sense of growing menace — as rich, older mystery novelist Andrew Wyke (Caine) envelops young upstart Milo Tindle (Law) in a spider’s web of a murder plot — and overarching tilt into the absurd make this natural turf for Pinter. At the time that Shaffer’s hugely successful two-hander appeared, it was noted by some that the play seemed to stand in two worlds — Christie’s, and Pinter’s.
Immediately, though, this is a radically different “Sleuth,” one that feels at times like Pinter self-parody. Milo arrives to meet Andrew at his estate, as recorded by surveillance cameras. Inside, what was once a deceptively inviting manor, stuffed with games and goofy devices, is now a metallic black box of minimalist interior design, so extreme it’s impossible to accept that anyone could possibly live in it. If past movies suggested their bad guys through the severity of their ultra-modern furnishings, production designer Tim Harvey has taken this already threadbare idea to the edge and beyond.
Simply put, Milo’s in love with Andrew’s wife, and wants him to sign off on a divorce so they can carry on with their lives. Incidentally in this version, though enormously important to Shaffer, is Milo’s Italian heritage and plebian identity, both of which Andrew holds in contempt. To grant Milo’s wish, provide the young man with needed capital and cash in on a lucrative insurance claim in return, Andrew proposes a little game: Milo will stage a break-in and steal Andrew’s wife’s jewels.
Milo’s early suspicions prove all too well-founded, and a seemingly dastardly act triggers some interest from the local constabulary, for which Andrew — mystery author supreme — isn’t entirely prepared. Beyond this point, plot details are top-secret, and for a whole generation unfamiliar with Shaffer’s work (due especially to the scarcity of the original pic on video), the game may prove mildly tingling.
While Pinter has often ingeniously deployed homoerotic subtext in his plays (and such films as “The Servant”), his strategy here is to make that subtext overt, so the parry and thrust of two hetero males over the same woman becomes a new game of sexual come-on by one toward the other. It isn’t only that “Sleuth” is too slender a piece to bear the added weight but Pinter’s inventions feel dramatically arbitrary, while jettisoning much that was fun in the original’s second act.
Such a severe departure — from the Spartan trimming of Shaffer’s far wordier text to the substitution of a cube-shaped glass elevator and color-shifting ceiling lights in lieu of Andrew’s eccentric creature comforts — seems to be pic’s entire purpose, making it hard to fathom why an entirely new work wasn’t conceived instead of this strange rewriting of a modest commercial thriller.
The only dash of fun is left for those who know the Mankiewicz film, in which Caine plays a genuinely vulnerable, ladder-climbing Milo with smarts that are greatly underestimated by Andrew (Laurence Olivier). Now Caine is the older gent, and the switcheroo is pure putty in his ever-reliable hands, as he gives the text a fresh reading that at least slightly justifies the revisionism.
Law, on the other hand, is unconvincing, particularly in the latter half (where Caine’s Milo was so surprising and engaging). Quite at home as the callow, out-of-work actor in the first half, Law feels increasingly ill at ease in what’s fundamentally a Pinter play on camera, with no ear for the music of the playwright’s precisely clipped yet real-sounding dialogue.
The same applies to Branagh, who has no eye for how to frame two bodies in stark, empty spaces; the recent loss of Michelangelo Antonioni is all the more felt. Visually dull production and uneasy editing by Neil Farrell make pic play much longer than its running time (nearly 45 minutes shorter than the original). Patrick Doyle’s grinding score sounds like a poor substitute for suitably minimalist composers like Michael Nyman.