The plot remains the same in the new film version of "Sleuth," but so much else has been radically reworked. The 1970 play, from Anthony Shaffer, first became a movie in 1972; Shaffer also wrote that movie's script. Now comes a new adaptation, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter; the result is one legendary author putting his stamp firmly on top of the work of another.
What we miss in this remake is a sense of playfulness. Pinter's script removes all the joy from the Andrew Wyke character - he is no longer a lover of games and author of light mysteries, but instead a cold, lonely, borderline psychotic recluse who now writes heavy, violent chillers. And this new "Sleuth" is cold and lonely, too, overwhelmed by a cynical, sinister edge. It is darker, meaner, sleeker.
It's also a decent thriller, once you're able to shove memories of the original out of the way. As a showcase for quality acting, this one's a treat. The casting is a gimmick, to be sure: Michael Caine, who played Milo Tindle in the original, returns to take over the Wyke role, once played by Laurence Olivier; Jude Law, who previously took Caine's old role in the "Alfie" remake, now plays Caine's old role here. But forget the gimmick. These are two of the finest actors around, working with the words of Pinter, under direction from Kenneth Branagh, a true actor's director.
That's an all-star line-up, which helps keep the project afloat during a problematic third act and a dreary tone that keeps any potential fun at bay. In fact, the film works mostly because of Caine and Law, who turn Pinter's words into a sly war of words. The battle becomes psychological, and we become less interested in the twists and turns of the plot than in the personal relationship between these two foes. (The fact that, unlike the 1972 film, no other actors get listed in the opening credits reveals where this remake's interests lie; this film is entirely about these two characters, and Branagh shows no concern toward anything else.)
For those unfamiliar with the tale, "Sleuth" watches as Milo Tindle, a young part-time actor, visit's the secluded home of millionaire writer Andrew Wyke. Milo, it turns out, is sleeping with Andrew's wife, and the older gentleman has a proposition: Milo will steal Andrew's prize jewels in a fake robbery, which will leave Andrew with a hefty insurance check and Milo with enough money to give Mrs. Wyke the comfortable life to which she is accustomed; the two will never have to meet again. If Milo declines, Andrew will simply refuse to divorce his wife, thus ruining Milo's chances of happiness.
Complications ensue from there, as each man reveals a trick or three up his sleeve. Plans and counter-plans get bandied about, all these tricks and schemes and an endless supply of lies. This is, essentially, a con game story in which two con men attempt to pull successful scams against each other, all while dodging their opponent's similar tricks.
In the original film, keeping up with all the lies was exhausting but wildly exhilarating, a witty game that asked the audience to play along. For this retelling, the task remains exhausting but lacks the reward of a clever puzzle. By the third act, Pinter piles on too much talk, none of it really going anywhere, and it allows the viewer too much time to figure out that not enough of the earlier twists hold up as well as they should. The surprises lack the sort of delight they deserve, as if the movie doesn't quite believe what it's showing us.
What makes "Sleuth" worth watching is the character work. It's fascinating to see where Caine takes his Andrew. With the feel of a "game master" gone from this version, Wyke becomes dangerous, devilish, and wholly unpredictable. Caine wisely restrains himself, delivering a low-key effort, and we're sucked into Wyke's game all the more for it. Law, meanwhile, allows himself the occasional over-the-top moment, a sense of young bravado washing over his character. The clash of these contrasting types makes every scene - yes, even the ones that don't quite hold together - fascinating on some level. Because of these two actors, we're constantly leaning forward, wondering where these characters will take us next.
Branagh then peppers his film with strange shots of security monitors, or of distant takes that lose the actors in the vast, bare set. The set design (production design by Tim Harvey, set decoration by Celia Bobak, for those keeping score) is a marvel, the spare home being too large and too empty for any one man. Everything is bathed in the modern, cold feel of hi-tech, and Branagh's directorial flourishes imply both a sadness over a man disconnected by his own gadgets and, thanks to all those security monitors, a sense of voyeurism.
It's not all entirely necessary, but it adds a nice flair to the proceedings. What this "Sleuth" lacks in enthusiasm it makes up in character-driven menace. Pinter and Branagh take a quaint parlor mystery and drag it into the 21st century, letting Caine and Law shine along the way.
Video & Audio
One of the more memorable aspects of "Sleuth" is its sleek look, and this lush anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer elegantly captures the deep, crisp blues and blacks that linger over every frame. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack delivers an equally impressive mix. Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Two commentary tracks are included: the first teams up Branagh and Caine, the other is a solo effort from Law, who also served as one of the film's producers. The former is the more enjoyable, as it's an actual conversation; Law's track, while informative and certainly worth a listen, is a bit dry at times.
The featurettes included on this disc contain major spoilers and should not be watched before the movie. I'll do my best to avoid repeating such spoilers here.
"A Game of Cat & Mouse: Behind the Scenes of Sleuth" (15:00) goes slightly above the standard making-of fare. It's still mainly a collection of cast and crew interviews mixed with on-set footage, but it goes into fuller detail regarding the film's origins and creation, not shying away from comparisons to the earlier film.
"Inspector Black: Make-Up Secrets Revealed" (2:34) is a quick look at the tricks used to bring the film's third character to life by concealing the identity of the surprise star who fills the role.
A batch of previews for other Sony titles rounds out the set. Some of these previews also play as the disc loads.
For all its flaws, "Sleuth" remains elegant and enigmatic, and while the disc may seem light on extras, what we get is a worthy round of supplements that enhance the viewing experience. Recommended to those who want a bit more character in their mysteries, and to those curious as to how these gentlemen managed to update a classic.