Sleuth has a lot going for it: a script by Harold Pinter; Michael Caine and Jude Law in the lead roles (the only roles, in fact); Kenneth Branagh directing. It's also one of those films that comes laden with historical baggage, at least for older viewers: it's based on Anthony Shaffer's1970 play, which Joseph Mankiewicz later made into a film starring Laurence Olivier and (in a neat, media-friendly twist) Michael Caine, who in the present film takes on the older, Olivier role in this battle of male egos.
Despite its tasty cast and rich background, Sleuth will struggle to break out of the wider end of the highbrow niche: it's not a comedy in the Hot Fuzz sense of the word, and plays as much more of a claustrophobic chamber piece than Mankiewicz' more rangy effort. It will travel, for sure, but it has 'urban' and 'cautious rollout' written all over it
The good news is that the new Sleuth looks intriguing (more on this later) and delivers several laughs - plus a few moments of genuinely gripping dramatic tension. The partly bad news is that, whatever it says on the poster, this is first and foremost 'A Film By Harold Pinter' - and though he has had plenty of screen experience, the veteran dramatist is here at his most stagey, delivering the kind of dated, stylised, comedy-of-menace dialogue that reminds us where the adjective Pinteresque came from, and why it's not always a term of praise.
It may seem sacrilegious to suggest, but Sleuth might have turned into a very good film indeed if the Nobel Laureate's darker, more aggressive take on Shaffer's play had itself been tweaked by a writer with an ear for naturalistic speech. It's perhaps no accident that the film got a warmer reception in Venice from the locals - most of whom were reading subtitles that softened down Pinter's edges in translation.
Still, Pinter's version has the merit, at least, of ironing out some of the dramatic problems of the Shaffer original - chiefly the charisma deficit between the two main characters. In the play and earlier film, writer Andrew Wyke (played by Olivier) was an upper-class snob with a gleefully vicious side to his character, who ran rings around Caine's hairdresser Milo Tindle - which made the reversal of the balance of terror in the last part a little unconvincing.
In Pinter's rewrite, Wyke is a little less impressive and Tindle a little more so. Caine's Wyke is a wealthy, successful writer of crime novels but by no means to the manor born - even though he lives in one. Jude Law's Tindle is an out-of-work actor - at least one step up from a hairdresser in most people's books - but more importantly, he has a hungry, animalistic edge to him that has both a weak side (as when he cowers in fear of a gun) and a strong one, expressed mostly in the confident, androgynous sexual prowl he adopts when he's on top of the game in the second half of the film.
The switchback mind games and ritual humiliations the two men inflict on each other are difficult to describe without giving away most of the plot. The premise, though, is simply stated: Tindle is living in London with Wyke's wife Maggie, and has come down to the writer's palatial country residence to discuss divorce terms, man to man. Wyke, at first smooth and reasonable, soon reveals a psychotic side: he's not that bothered about losing Maggie, but he is determined to punish this shallow upstart, with his tacky blond highlights and thumb ring, for taking something that belongs to him.
Law holds his end up gamely against the experienced Caine, though at one point, when his character is himself playing another character, he suffers from the same regional- accent-wobble that marred his Mancunian barman in My Blueberry Nights. Easily the best thing about Sleuth, though, is the third major presence: Wyke's house. Outside, it's a typical English country house; inside, it's a high-tech designer playpad filled with gadgets, from surveillance cameras to shifting mood lights to a centre-room lift.
It's embellished with contemporary art works by British artists Anthony Gormley and Gary Hume, plus striking furniture prototypes courtesy of designer Ron Arad. Tim Harvey's production design keeps pushing what could have been just another slick urban interior into more surreal territory - as when Law and Caine spar verbally while seated in two different versions of an Arad armchair - one unfeasibly large, the other uncomfortably small.
Camerawork and lighting too provide visual counterparts to the stylised dialogue, opting for monchrome red, green or blue washes like something out of a Gilbert and George triptych, off-kilter framings, odd angles (not only in the frequent CCTV footage) and striking chiaroscuro effects.
Sony Pictures Classics
Castle Rock Entertainment
A Riff Raff and A Timnick Films Production
adapted from the play by Anthony Shaffer