Old, reclusive detective novelist, living alone in a grand country house, is visited by the dashing young man who has run away with his wife, demanding their divorce. Cuckold and adulterer tête-à-tête. What could possibly happen? Only the most taunting dual of wits, as old age challenges the vigour and potency of youth. And who could be more appropriate for such a match than the aged Michael Caine, and his reincarnated, youthful self, Jude Law.
Jude Law has already followed Caine’s youthful footsteps in the remake of Caine’s 1966 classic, Alfie; and does so again in Sleuth. Yes, of course, Sleuth is another early (1972) classic of Caine’s, in which he played the role of the young lover, Milo Tindle, against the inimitable Lawrence Olivier, as the detective novelist, Andrew Wyke.
But crucially, Caine returns in Sleuth the remake, to play Olivier’s role. So again, just like in the original film, we have the particular joy of watching two different generations of British actors competing in intensely hostile roles, each actor’s capabilities forced into sharp relief and juxtaposition. Both Caine and Olivier had won Oscar nominations for their performances in the original Sleuth, and Law and Caine are certainly as compelling as I’ve ever seen them in this remake.
However well the two perform and appropriate they are for their roles, is there any really new substance to make this more than just another intriguing remake? The producers of the film (which includes Jude Law) were concerned to develop what they saw as all the “undiscovered territory within the kernel of the story”, says Law.
The screenplay, originally written by Anthony Shaffer and adapted from his 1970 Tony Award-winning play, was entrusted into the Noble prize-winning hands of Harold Pinter to rewrite. Having imbued it with every bit of the ‘Pinteresque’: deceptively simple dialogue; ambiguity to every word, stress and pause; and a lurking sense of tension, of a sinister, or at times even sexual kind (you are never quite sure); the screenplay is “totally transformed”, as Pinter admits himself. Although Pinter does not essentially change the original plot of theatrical deception, the final third of the film does take a very different direction, the sexual/sinister ambiguity of the dialogue bringing to the film wholly new depth, which is quite terrific.
However, some of the main plot features which have been kept, which had complemented so well the entire theatrical tone of the original film, do not appear so convincing under the markedly different tone of Pinter’s screenplay. The film’s director, the renowned Kenneth Branagh, does try to counter this by creating a very unusual and playful space in the interior of the country house (in which the film is almost entirely set), lit up with coloured lighting, which varies to reflect the action. But, still, everything does not really flow well enough together.
Similarly, in the very first scene, when Caine and Law meet on the footsteps to the country house, I am unsure whether it is that the dialogue is just too simplistic, or the choice of using a CCTV camera angle (which is a running feature of the cinematography), looking vertically down upon their heads, is too distracting. Either way they feel at odds to one another. This also occurs at other points in the film, the cinematography, striving to be sensitive to Pinter’s delicately tuned screenplay whilst at the same time being playful, gets the better of itself.
There is certainly a lot which is new in this Pinter/Branagh take of Sleuth, but at the same time, rather inevitably, it has lost much of the ease which had belonged to the original. Despite this, it still makes for surprising, tense and taunting viewing.