Sleuth (15)

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The Independent Culture

It's 35 years since Anthony Schaffer's postmodern thriller, Sleuth, transferred from the West End stage to the big screen, with Laurence Olivier as a wealthy crime novelist named Andrew Wyke, and Michael Caine playing Milo Tindle, a young man who's having an affair with his wife. Tindle visits Wyke's country manor to ask him to agree to a divorce. But Wyke, understandably, won't give up without playing a mind game or two.

Now there's a new adaptation, with Jude Law stepping into a young Michael Caine role for the second time (after Alfie), and Caine himself graduating to the part of Wyke. Just to add wattage to the film's star power, Sleuth is directed by Kenneth Branagh, and the screenplay is by Harold Pinter, who throws out almost every word of Schaffer's dialogue and dreams up a new third act which is even dafter than the original. With those four on board, Sleuth must have seemed such an incredibly auspicious project that no one stopped to ask whether there was any point in remaking it in the first place.

What Branagh and Pinter have done is take a play that was always patently artificial and stagebound, and make it even more so. The setting is still a country house, but while it's Georgian on the outside, the interior is a modernist, low-lit concrete box with furniture that could be mistaken for sculpture, and vice versa. It's impossible to believe that Wyke would visit the place if it were a contemporary art gallery, let alone live in it. Pinter's script is just as stripped down and cold. And, unlike Schaffer's, it's not very funny.

Sleuth is too synthetic to draw you in as a drama, but for a while it's still quite enjoyable to watch two major actors trading hard-edged lines in a hard-edged setting. The fatal flaw is that the plot is nearly as unbelievable as everything else. Schaffer's play had two men tricking each other so slyly that the audience was tricked, too. But in the new version the men's schemes just don't make sense. How can they fake a burglary, for a start, in a house dotted with CCTV cameras? You can't applaud their battle of wits when they behave as if they don't have half a brain between them.

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