*/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras B
starring Michael Caine, Jude Law
screenplay by Harold Pinter, based on the play by Anthony Shaffer
directed by Kenneth Branagh
by Walter Chaw Call it an actor's workshop, if you must, but it's more like an actor's mausoleum, and the Anthony Shaffer source material, as punched-up by Harold Pinter just prior to Pinter's death in the classic unfilmable Pinter style, is hopelessly stagebound and déclassé. It's old people playing at Patrick Marber, falling into the exact trap that most adaptations of Ian McEwan have fallen: mistaking the author fucking with us for great insights into the human condition. Sleuth, Kenneth Branagh's reboot of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's museum piece starring Laurence Olivier and a thirty-six-years-younger Michael Caine, brings Caine back in the Olivier role, with Jude Law once again taking over for Caine after the Alfie remake. It's terrible stuff, stiff and laboured and crippled by self-importance, self-aggrandizing camera trickery, and foreground symbolism that fails from its Osterman Weekend surveillance paranoia all the way through to its willing suspension of disbelief in a pair of performances that never for a moment feel like anything but performances. Most disappointingly, there's a conspicuous lack of fun in a picture that seems more interested in the antagonists' psychology than in exploiting the possibilities of a piece surgically tuned to being a lark. Excavations of male psychology beyond the urge to gamesmanship have absolutely no place in Sleuth: you can talk about why guys lay their dicks on the bar, but you shouldn't do it for an entire feature. Branagh's strength as a director of Shakespeare is as an ambassador for the Bard's latent themes of sociological aggression and animism, while his Dead Again proved that even without Shakespeare, his ear for the operatic could carry the day in an artfully campy supernatural melodrama. But in applying his anthropologist's touch to Sleuth, he's met his match: there's nothing to unearth because the dig site is, frankly, sterile.
For the uninitiated, Sleuth is a three-man roundelay; for the initiated, it's a two-man tour de force; and either way, it's better as audition fodder or an evening of escapist fare than as a foundation for poignant discovery. In fact, attempts at making the material sing in a different register run the risk of the play crossing some invisible line between being camp and being offensive. The Mankiewicz flick was a favourite of mine as a child because of its grotesquery and obvious staginess: it opens with scenic models, after all, while this new one opens with banks of security monitors presided over by novelist Andrew Wyke (Caine). The subject of his voyeurism is hairdresser Milo Tindal (Law), come to Wyke's isolated country mansion to tell him that he, Milo, has been sleeping with Wyke's wife, and that she and Milo are contemplating running off together. Wyke already knows this, of course, and so begins a day of one-upmanship and ugly talk that culminates, finally, in the intrusion of the real world at last, but too late. The appeal of the original lies in its awareness of itself as airless--it's at its most vulnerable when there's a possibility that some aspect of rationality might puncture its carefully-constructed artifice, whereas this version seems to constantly seek reassurance in some kind of bedrock. It never allows itself to fly into fancy, thus the fantasies and role-playing engaged in by the pair are never compelling. If you're inviting me to use the part of my head that sniffs around for bullshit instead of the part that wants to be seduced by it, I think you're making a bad miscalculation. This Sleuth, then, is bullshit from the first line of Pinter's adaptation--in which Wyke observes that his car is bigger than Milo's--to a new element of latent (or not so) homosexuality introduced in such a way as to usher in an entirely unwelcome question of homophobia. This isn't a revered playwright pushing a hot button, it's an old playwright thinking that calling someone a faggot and a cunt means the same thing in 2007 it did in 1977. If you ask me, Sleuth requires a light touch; I admire Branagh a great deal, but not for his light touch.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Sleuth comes home on Blu-ray from Sony in a nice 2.35:1, 1080p/AVC transfer that highlights, of all things, that Branagh is doing his best to channel Peter Greenaway's The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover in the introduction of different colour palettes for each room of Wyke's sterile, concrete/chrome/glass lair. Skin tones are natural, blacks are black, and detail is razor-sharp beneath a steely sheen of film grain. When Milo returns in the form of Inspector Black, you can count every hair glued to his face; look closer, and you can spot the glue, too. (Holding the presentation back? Some artifacting in the more intensely saturated areas of the image.) The movie sounds great, too, the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio offering a cavernous immediacy to the piece. It seems the best possible mix, given the dialogue-heavy material--you feel as though you're sitting in the room with them.
The first of two commentaries features Branagh and Caine in a fitfully fascinating dialogue that has Caine dropping a few anecdotes from the set of the original and Branagh asking the veteran thesp about techniques and habits. Caine obliges by telling why it is he never watches rushes and how it was he acquired a certain nickname--a physical trait he believes was instrumental in his getting cast as a gangster for the better part of his early career. The track, for what it's worth, is a lot more playful than the execution of the film. Law records a separate solo yakker that, although packed with long silences, also conveys a seemingly genuine respect for Caine and Branagh. It's hard not to like Law. "A Game of Cat and Mouse: Behind the Scenes" (15 mins.) is a fairly typical thing in which the principals--including Pinter, in possibly his last contribution to posterity--take turns talking about the film. "Inspector Black: Make-Up Secrets Revealed" (2 mins.) is exactly what it sounds like. The problem is that, unlike the original, without a good, sound grounding in fantasy, the second-act shenanigans are deeply unconvincing. I'd be genuinely shocked if anyone coming to this picture fresh was fooled for a moment--genuinely shocked, consequently, that this film's Wyke could have been bamboozled, either. A parade of trailers in HD (for Steep, Saawariya, The Jane Austen Book Club, Across the Universe, 30 Days of Night, We Own the Night, Closer, The Holiday) rounds out the disc. Originally published: August 11, 2009.