Review:Caine and Law Clash in `Sleuth’

October 11, 2007 at 7:05 pm Leave a comment

 You could think of “Sleuth” as an erudite episode of “The Itchy and Scratchy Show”: Michael Caine and Jude Law fight, and fight, and fight and fight and fight, only they have Harold Pinter’s increasingly explosive words to lob at each other instead of hand grenades and sticks of dynamite.

Just don’t think of it as a remake.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh from a script by Pinter, based on the Anthony Shaffer play, this “Sleuth” shares a title with the original 1972 film and the presence of Caine, and that’s about it. (Pinter, the Nobel Prize-winning British playwright, hadn’t seen Shaffer’s play or the Joseph L. Mankiewicz film it inspired beforehand.)

Back then, Caine played young Milo Tindle, an English hairdresser of Italian descent who was having an affair with the wife of the successful and much older mystery writer Andrew Wyke, played by Laurence Olivier. This time, Caine takes the Olivier role with Law stepping into Caine’s shoes for the second time, following 2004’s “Alfie.”

These brash men battle over Andrew’s wife with unpredictable, ultimately violent results in what is essentially a two-character play on film. You have to allow yourself to succumb to the intentional artificiality of the structure to enjoy it. And you really should Caine and Law chew up the severely modern scenery and bounce off each other with great wit, style and energy.

Andrew’s seemingly traditional country manor opens up to reveal itself as an aesthetically unforgiving amalgamation of concrete, glass and steel, filled with surveillance cameras that operate on remote control. (Branagh gets a bit caught up in showing us how cool the house is from every imaginable angle, which can be distracting; it’s as if we’re going on a virtual tour on a real estate Web site.) You wouldn’t want to live here, but your art a Rothko or a Mondrian, perhaps would look great on the walls.

That’s fitting, though, both because there’s no room for warmth in this cavernous space, and because of the innate staginess of the production. This summer’s similarly themed “Interview,” in which Steve Buscemi and Sienna Miller sparred in a New York loft, also felt like a play on film while trying to remain rooted in a relatable, celebrity-driven reality. That clash of concepts came off as contrived, uncomfortable.

In “Sleuth,” Caine and Law go after each other but it’s easy to fall into the darkly comic, rapid-fire rhythm of their routine. Their characters know it’s a game, too that’s part of the fun.

Andrew has invited Milo to his home and condescends to him from the moment they meet. (“You didn’t expect me to be so intelligent, so quick-witted, did you?” he asks matter-of-factly over whiskey.) Andrew knows Milo is having an affair with his wife, and Milo knows that he knows. Both men are quite reasonable about this fact polite, even.

What’s in dispute is what should happen next. Milo has come to ask Andrew to give her a divorce; Andrew uses his plea as an opportunity to toy with this ambitious young man’s psyche, a tactic which grows aggressively destructive.

“Sleuth” maintains just the right amount of steadily building tension over a breathless hour and a half and that’s probably just about right; any much longer and it would have run out of places to go in this exercise in one-upmanship. Branagh probably would have run out of rooms to explore, too.

“Sleuth,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R for strong language. Running time: 86 minutes. Three stars out of four.



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