As they say on television, if you don’t want to know the result, look away now. If you don’t want to know the ins and outs of the plot of Sleuth, close this now and come back to it after you’ve seen the film.
At the barest, the film is about the deadly serious games played between millionaire novelist Andrew Wyke and his wife’s lover, Milo Tindle (here, an unsuccessful actor rather than the hairdresser of the original) as they grapple for supremacy over one weekend.
Not a remake in the traditional sense, it borrows the central idea and much of the plot of Anthony Shaffer’s original, but has been totally rewritten by Harold Pinter. It’s conceived (in both versions) with a three-act structure, and in the new version, the first two acts follow the skeleton of the original, but the third, and least satisfying, is totally new.
In the first act, Wyke convinces the impecunious Milo to undertake a robbery so that he and Wyke’s wife, Maggie, can be together and pretends to shoot him – fade to black, with the audience convinced it was fatal. In the second, a police detective comes to the house to investigate Milo’s disappearance and Wyke is forced to admit the robbery charade, but, confronted with evidence that suggests he’s killed the younger man, he declares that he used a blank in the gun and Milo had left unharmed. Just as he’s about to arrest Wyke, the policeman reveals himself to be a disguised Milo. One round all.
Originally, the third act followed a terrified Wyke struggling to find evidence that Milo had planted around the house, the latter claiming to have murdered Wyke’s lover to implicate him. Finally, Wyke shoots Milo with real bullets as the police arrive and the latter dies with the controls of Wyke’s automata in his grip so the police know he’s there. The new film’s third act takes a different tack, with an intrigued Wyke, impressed by Milo’s performance, offering him the opportunity to replace Maggie in his life and bed as a kept man. Milo seems to play along, but then throws the offer back in his face and is shot as he goes to leave.
Caine and Law do have a certain amount of chemistry between them and it’s easy to see why finding a kindred soul would arouse Wyke, but it again smacks of not being able to find anything cleverer. Pinter used to be able to play with sexuality and the powerplays of attraction with more subtlety (as in The Servant), but presumably feels forced to up the ante as it’s no longer shocking to the audience.
The greatest loss is the witty dialogue of the original, with its verbal sparring and class struggle. It has now been replaced by something brutish – obviously, no one told the Nobel Prize winner that it’s not clever to use a swearword when you can’t think of anything better (a well-placed one can have a shocking effect, but, after several repetitions, loses its impact).
Kenneth Branagh’s direction is also often equally unsubtle, and the use of strange camera angles and CCTV irritates rather than giving a sense of style.
It seems everything has been stripped down – the dialogue, the plot and the setting. Originally, the Wyke house was full of games and toys, but here it is industrial chic, all chrome and emptiness. Be warned: Country Life readers may well let out an involuntary gasp of alarm at what appears to have been done to the interior of the perfect Georgian country house.
All of which detracts from what are two excellent performances from Jude Law as the lover and Michael Caine as the novelist (he played the Tindle role in the original version opposite Laurence Olivier). Mr Caine exudes reptilian malevolence, displaying malice and charm in equal measure. But it’s Jude Law who is the knockout, returning to the form he used to display when not required to be the glossy leading man. He’s probably even more convincing as the inspector than Michael Caine was in the original (he holds the accent better) and seems more vulnerable as Milo (the shooting at the end of the first act is much more brutal and skocking).
Slick, stark and twisty, it’s this year’s most stylish and clever thriller, but will ultimately leave you disappointed that the alchemy of the four talents involved could not have produced something with more fire.