My first reaction on hearing that yet another old Michael Caine movie was being remade was to groan. After the disastrous remakes of Get Carter and Alfie The Italian Job was a bit better do we really need another version of Sleuth? In fact, starting from low expectations, this is quite a decent effort which certainly brings something new to the party.
The original 1972 Herman Mankiewicz film, based on Anthony Schaffers stage play, was a highly entertaining comedy-thriller full of ingenious twists and turns starring Caine and Laurence Olivier. Kenneth Branaghs update is a much darker affair, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter which (not surprisingly!) accentuates the menace and adds a new psycho-sexual layer to the cat and mouse games played by Caine again (now in the Olivier role) and Jude Law.
The plot itself is basically the same as the original film, retaining the principal tricks played on the audience. It revolves around a battle of wits between celebrated crime novelist Andrew Wyke (Caine) and his wifes Anglo-Italian lover Milo Tindle (Law) now an out-of-work actor rather than a hairdresser who visits Wyke at his isolated country house to try to persuade to agree to a divorce.
Wyke claims hes no longer in love with Maggie, but suggests a deal to ensure she wont come back to him for more money: he will let Tindle steal the million pounds worth of jewellery from his safe so that Tindle can sell it and support Maggie in the manner to which she is accustomed, while Wyke himself will claim on the insurance. Needless to say, there is more than meets the eye in this sleight of hand, as the game turns into a matter of life and death, with each man trying to out-bluff the other and blanks giving way to real bullets.
If you havent seen the original film there is enough subtle suspense here to keep you guessing, while if you have it is sufficiently dissimilar in tone to feel like a new work altogether. Nonetheless the psychological duel at the heart of the film remains compelling viewing, although some viewers may dislike the strong theatrical streak which extends right down to the set.
Branaghs direction is characteristically heavy-handed at times, with an unnecessarily portentous quality, but he laudably cuts a whopping 45 minutes off the original over-inflated movie. The dialogue sounds very Pinteresque, with tersely ambivalent exchanges and plenty of pregnant pauses subtext is working overtime here – replacing the original witty banter. The power struggle is given a more malevolent, sexualized edge.
Visually this is also a very different experience: instead of the charmingly old-fashioned clutter of a Georgian mansion, in Tim Harveys impressive production design we have an ultra-modern minimalist house packed with high-tech gadgetry, all photographed in subdued, blue-tinged colour by Haris Zambarloukos. In addition to fragmented mirror reflections and distorted camera angles, we now have CCTV connected to wireless laptop to heighten the sense of surveillance or voyeurism which marks the claustrophobic relationship between the two protagonists.
Caine performance is the films main strength, and the charge between him and Jude Law is electric: a superbly-realized sparring between older and younger males over a woman we never meet. Whereas Olivier played Wyke as an amusing eccentric whose game-playing goes out of control, Caines character is a much more sinister, even psychotic, presence, riddled with sexual jealousy and bent on the total humiliation of his rival. Powerful yet understated, Caine suggests much bitterness and pain beneath his hooded eyes, but also a certain pathos in his increasing fascination with the physical charms of the younger man.
Law also gives an impressive performance, preserving the cockiness of Caines original characterization but adding a feline quality to Tindle which he manipulates to his advantage in the disturbingly intimate sadomasochistic games. He comes across as a brash, shallow man on the make, capable of acting whatever part will bring him most personal gain.
So despite its flaws, overall the new Sleuth stands up pretty well and on its own terms – to the old Sleuth. Lets just hope a remake of Zulu is not in the pipeline