Review: Sleuth

An update of the 1972 Laurence Olivier/Michael Caine thriller, the new "Sleuth" (IMDb listing) managed to convince Caine to return to his cinematic past. Perhaps the incentive was the chance to step into Olivier's shoes now that over 30 years have passed, or maybe the story's catnip appeal hasn't lost its potent scent. The bottom line is, the story was crackerjack then and it remains so in this wicked incarnation.

Andrew Wyke (Michael Caine) is a wealthy crime novelist, inviting his wife's lover, up-and-coming actor Milo (Jude Law), to his country house for a chat. While Milo is hoping to convince Andrew to divorce his wife, the author is more interested in a series of mind games. Convincing Milo to stage a robbery in his house to collect the insurance on lavish jewelry, Andrew sets in motion a plan to humiliate Milo, to which the young adulterer retaliates with his own extravagant designs for revenge.

The screenplay, based on Anthony Shaffer's play, has been sharpened by Nobel-winner Harold Pinter, who drains "Sleuth" of chilling menace and fills it back up again with psychosexual ambiance suited perfectly to the gifts of Caine and Law. Surely it doesn't contain the sweaty wrath of the 1972 Joseph Mankiewicz picture, but the reworking of the source material reveals a new gold mine of conflict to pillage, and director Kenneth Branagh is game to reach for the throat.

Because of the material's stilted theatrical background, inherently there's a distance to the verbal war between Milo and Andrew. "Sleuth" is simply two men bantering back and forth with increasing toxicity for 85 minutes (down from the 135 running time of the original film), leaving little room for narrative flamboyance. Where Mankewicz explored the claustrophobia of a massive home stuffed to the gills with ornamentation, Branagh heads the opposite way, staging the drama in a house of pristine minimalism, decorated with the finest, raised-pinkie efforts of the British modern art movement.

Andrew's home is a steel blue, icy bear trap where Milo finds himself in way over his head. The location allows Branagh to explore the theme of observation, through frequent security camera POVs, keeping the picture at arm's length until the moment he takes it to the next level of tension as Milo and Andrew's civility starts to splinter. From there, "Sleuth" becomes a study in nervous framing, where Branagh keeps the momentum of the performances on edge through extreme close-up, tightly monitoring the byzantine variety of reactions.

As this is the Law and Caine show, the actors welcome anything the script or Branagh throws at them. For Caine, the performance is a sly, vulnerable depiction of cerebral power. Law is the slightly dim lamb being led to the slaughter, and the range of emotions he must convey is impressive. The acting is impeccable, especially when it has to sell bizarre lapses in logic, or when Branagh can't quite create the illusion of mental dominance the script demands. I especially enjoyed the sexual twitch toward the end of the film, where Andrew makes Milo a colossal offer that seems too good to be true, with both men internally processing what could be if they simply took the female element out of the equation.

Divided into three acts, this war of ambiguity and deception doesn't always stay fresh. Even with a short running time, Branagh has difficulty retaining a taut pace, leading to moments of unanticipated slack. However, "Sleuth" remains an effective display of acting, with enough twists and turns to satisfy the newcomers and avoid insulting the faithful.

Filmfodder Grade: B