I don’t know if I would go so far as to call the original film version of “Sleuth” a classic, but it is a darn good film and features virtuoso performances from Sir Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine.
Approximately a year ago, I heard of the plans to remake “Sleuth”. Groan. Can’t they at least try to come up with a new idea in Hollywood? Change the character’s names and the title and call something it new? Why mess with a classic? Then, I remembered the original is a very good film, but not a classic. Michael Caine and Jude Law were signed to play the roles Olivier and Caine originated. This could be interesting. Michael Caine appearing in both versions? My interest was piqued. When I heard Kenneth Branagh was directing from a Harold Pinter screenplay, I was hooked.
The new version has some good things going for it, but the bad things far outweigh the good making “Sleuth (2007)” a disappointment.
Milo Tindle (Law), an out-of-work actor, arrives at the estate of Andrew Wyke (Caine), a hugely successful mystery novelist. Wyke has summoned the young man to discuss the affair he is having with his wife. Milo insists Wyke’s wife is leaving him and Wyke is only too glad to let her go, he has a mistress of his own. But he wants the separation and divorce to be permanent; he doesn’t want his ex-wife running back to him when Milo’s money runs out. Wyke suggests Milo ‘break’ into the house and steal some jewels worth One Million Pounds. Wyke has the name of a fence who will give Milo 800,000 pounds for the jewels and that should last them a while. Andrew has thought of everything. Milo agrees and Wyke uses his home’s elaborate electronics and surveillance system to guide him through the process, to make it seem real. But it wouldn’t seem real unless Wyke found the robber and defended his home would it?
“Sleuth” originated as a play and it showcases two characters who play a game of verbal and psychological cat and mouse, sparring with one another, trying to gain the upper hand. In the new version, there are many changes, many of which benefit the overall film.
As Milo drives up to Wyke’s house, Branagh introduces us to the elaborate security system the multi-millionaire has installed in his country estate. Milo’s car triggers an alarm at the gate and his every move is caught on surveillance camera - there doesn’t seem to be a centimeter of the expansive grounds he wouldn’t be able to see on one of the system’s surveillance screens.
As Milo attempts the ‘break-in’, Wyke watches him every step of the way, directing him as he watches his adversary’s every move. And Tindle gets caught up in the game, using his acting skills to become a ‘burglar’.
The new version of this film is about half as long as the original was. And this benefits the new film. Because of the length, the original version seems even more stagey; to watch two actors facing off against one another for the entire length of a film running about two and a half hours doesn’t help the film escape its stage roots. The new version is about 90 minutes long allowing it to move at a faster clip, giving us less time to think about the fact we are simply watching two actors on screen the whole time.
It is also interesting to watch Caine take on the other role in the story. Michael Caine is one of the best actors of our time, but to see him play the other side of the coin provides for an interesting look at his career. He portrays Andrew Wyke in a suitably devious way. As the story progresses, we see shades of his anger, his relief, his amusement, all qualities we would expect to see in a famous mystery novelist.
And that is where the benefits of “Sleuth (2007)” end.
When Milo drives up to the large country estate, we expect the two actors to face off in a huge, expansive maze. The original film provided a huge country house for the two actors to chase each other through. Of course, this provides an advantage to Andrew (played by Olivier in the original) because he knows the various secrets of his expansive home. When Milo (Law) drives up to the estate in this new version, I had high hopes. It appears to be the exact same type of home. Then, he enters the house and we immediately see the hand of Andrew’s wife in the ridiculous modern furniture and design. Initially, the house seems unusual and interesting. We soon realize the two actors are moving through a series of four rooms. What happened to the rest of the estate? This setting appears to be little more than a luxury apartment in some swank new building. It seems very small and claustrophobic. And very ‘play-like’.
For a while, the shorter length seems to benefit the film. But as Law’s Milo Tindle becomes more engrossed in the story, the actor becomes less and less convincing. Law seems to think he needs to scream, shout and act like an actor in a horror film in order to get his character across, almost as though he is rushing through all of his character’s emotions. You could put some orange glaze on Law and serve him at Easter dinner. His hammy performance is even more egregious when you watch him act with Caine. Caine is an accomplished actor and can make even the most over the top performance seem more natural. Andrew is an interesting character and Caine imbues him with calmness, making him more believable. Law, on the other hand, seems possessed by the devil as he grins maniacally and chews the scenery.
In the original, Tindle is a hairdresser, in this new version, an out-of-work actor. Yet, oddly, Wyke refers to the younger man as a hairdresser a few times. Is this a mistake? Did Pinter simply forget to replace all of the references to ‘hairdresser’ when he copied the original script? Is this meant to be a put down?
If you are going to remake a well-known film, and rework the story, make sure it works. The beauty of the original is it is basically two stories and the two characters change their roles. In the first half, one man has the upper hand. In the second, the other does. In Pinter’s version, one man has the upper hand. Then the other. Then later, the other regains the advantage. Oh, wait, maybe not. It goes back and forth, almost on a whim, and the game of cat and mouse loses focus and doesn’t make sense. There is also a ludicrous plot development late in the story which does nothing to help Law’s performance, only exaggerating all of the bad elements of his style.
“Sleuth (2007)” is a big disappointment. Rent the original and watch two actors at the top of their game spar against one another.