Talking Movies

November 30, 2019

From the Archives: Sleuth

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

On his sprawling country estate, an aging writer (Caine) matches wits with the struggling actor (Law) who has stolen his wife’s heart.

If you don’t know who Harold Pinter is then avoid this film like the plague. If you do know who Harold Pinter is, Nobel Laureate and Attendant Lord of British Theatre from the 1950s onwards, then you will find this film quite rewarding but not entirely dramatically satisfying. There’s a Pinter pause in the very first piece of dialogue that will unnerve the hell out of cinemagoers that have just wandered in by chance to a Jude Law film and will alert theatregoers to the fact that this is really Harold Pinter’s latest play. This is the real deal; a comedy of menace as two men fight each other with veiled verbal threats in a confined space, trying to assert control over each other, and over the woman they both want to possess, who is absent for most of the film. Sleuth features one of the most riveting opening sequences of the year as Branagh ditches his customary extremely mobile camera for fixed set-ups and long-shots, it is a full 12 minutes before the first close-up, on Michael Caine for “I understand you’re f***ing my wife”.

Law is there to discuss a divorce for Caine’s wife but Caine has a different sort of proposition for Law and the mind-games between the two escalate quickly. The original Anthony Shaffer play was filmed by legendary All About Eve director Joseph L Mankiewiecz in 1972 as his swansong. One of the best films of the 1970s it was twisted, funny and Laurence Olivier and Caine faced off against each other in a clash of RADA and cockney accents that mirrored the class divide between their characters. That tension has been replaced by a homoerotic undertone highly reminiscent of Pinter’s play No Man’s Land that doesn’t really work. Olivier’s dangerous eccentric lived in a house cluttered with useless bric-a-brac, Michael Caine’s modernist open-plan house is made to appear equally sinister thru Branagh’s clever use of lighting.

Sleuth is so strongly dependent on its plot-twists that it’s almost impossible to write about it without ruining it. Instead let us mock Jude Law. One of the twists in Sleuth depends entirely on acting ability. That twist is of regretful necessity thrown away here because while Law may be under the impression that he can do more than stand in front of the lights and look pretty, Pinter is not. His version from that point onwards departs radically from the original’s plot points becoming a depiction of malevolent psychological cruelty rather than a joyously frantic game of cat and also-cat, but Law’s acting cannot sustain such intensity, so after 86 minutes we simply end with a whimper. Sleuth must therefore be ranked as one of the most interesting failures of 2007. But I’d rather have this intelligent attempt, even with Jude Law, than the polished mediocrities that clog up the multiplexes, any day.

2/5

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