I was so excited when I heard about this project. The original Sleuth (see above) is one of my favorite movies. It is a funny and tense battle of words and wits between Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, played out in a mansion that is a wonder to behold. It was so good that, normally, I would have thought a re-make would be a terrible idea … and then I heard about the casting. Michael Caine would be in it again, but he’d be playing the part that Olivier had in the original! Now, that opens up all sorts of possibilities. Jude Law would take Caine’s part. Sounded like great casting to me; he was supposed to be a pretty boy, and Law can be great in the right part. And it was to be directed by Kenneth Branagh, who has done some of my favorite Shakespeare adaptations, with a script by … hold on to your horses … Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, probably the most respected playwright of his generation. Show me to the box office!
Then a few doubts began to creep in. I heard that Pinter had never read or seen the original play, a masterpiece of sly stagecraft by Anthony Shaffer, nor the movie, scripted by Shaffer and directed by one of Hollywood’s greats, Joseph L. Mankiewicz. This was to be a “new take” on the material, by Pinter. And I recalled that I had never actually seen a Pinter play, though I’d seen some of the movies he scripted from other people’s books, like The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Turtle Diary. Okay, he can sure write for the screen. Then the reviews started coming out. A few people liked it, but mostly, they were unkind. So I didn’t see it in the theater, and have only now seen the DVD.
Oh, my. How could four talented people have gone so very, very wrong? That’s not a rhetorical question. I have an answer. Caine and Law are fine, as usual, doing the best they can with the material they are given. Branagh is … competent. He gets way too arty with some of his shots, but there is an almost Kubrick feel to some of the lighting and composition. No, the problem is in the script. It really, really sucks. It is as if Pinter went through the script and decided to totally reverse every element that made the original such a tour de force, and so delightful. He was definitely not going for delightful here. The movie is an ordeal. You feel like you’ve been worked over with a nightstick.
Pinter follows the plot, sort of, for the first two thirds of the movie, but he sets it in a … I guess you have to call it a house, as Michael Caine seems to be living in it … that is the polar opposite of the original set. Polar is the right word, too. I’d sooner live in a walk-in freezer. It’s all concrete, filled with blue light, and “furnished” with items that would have piqued Torquemada’s interest, when he tired of the rack and the red-hot spikes shoved up the rectum. Seeing Michael Caine actually sitting in one of these torture devices is way beyond ludicrous.
The original movie was brimming over with wit, with repartee, with ingenuity and cleverness. Pinter’s idea of repartee here is for someone to shout “Fuck you!” Shaffer’s screenplay was a duel. Fencing. Elegant moves, choice words. Pinter’s is sheer brutality, professional wrestling at its worst. Body slams and shouted noise. There was a lightness to the original, even when at its most tense. Shaffer never for a moment expected you to believe his preposterous plot; it was a celebration of all the sillier elements of the classic, very very British drawing room mystery, as practiced by Agatha Christie and her ilk, when detectives were always cerebral eccentrics like Hercule Poirot or titled idlers like Lord Peter Wimsey, and plots were labyrinthine and existed only as puzzles to be solved. Olivier’s Andrew Wyke had become rich writing this sort of thing.
Pinter starts off right, by making Caine’s Wyke a writer of modern-day thrillers, equally as unlikely as the old school, but bloodier. That’s as it should be. We live in a different age, and it could have been fun to highlight the differences. Caine’s Wyke is not a member of the upper class, and that’s good, too. He is a brilliant actor, but he can’t really pull that off. But that could have been done and still remained true to the playful nature of the original. There was no need to use a bludgeon.
For the last third of the movie, Pinter goes off into what I must assume is Pinterland, where characters talk at each other and make little sense, flit from one idea and emotion to another without any connection, and begin behaving completely unlike the loathsome people they had been before, only to become more loathsome. Homosexuality is hinted at, and where did that come from? The ending is simply stupid. The whole movie was a bit like watching a good friend being gang-raped by baboons, and being unable to do anything about it.