Sunday, December 9, 2007

Sleuth (2007, Kenneth Branagh)

I count myself as a fan of the original 1972 version of Sleuth, but I wouldn't presume to say that the story couldn't be told again in a different style. But not this- anything but this. As if to willfully distance themselves from the film's predecessor, Branagh and (slumming) screenwriter Harold Pinter play a kind of mind game with the original's fans by keeping little other than the premise and the character names. What's more, Branagh attempts to allay the stagebound setup by tricking up his direction practically beyond comprehensibility. Branagh fills the screen with surveillance cameras and tight closeups of his actors, and the set, which in the Mankiewicz version was overflowing with the ornate toys and games with which Andrew Wyke amused himself, now feels like nothing so much as a challenge to the production designer to dress the set entire from the Sharper Image catalog. In addition, Branagh and Pinter lose the class envy that was so integral to the 1972 version. Whereas the original Andrew Wyke (played deliciously by Sir Laurence Olivier) was the son of a noble family who resented the low-class upstart Milo Tindle (Michael Caine) horning in on his woman, here Wyke (Caine again) is merely a rich guy who doesn't want to give his wife up to Tindle (Jude Law) without a fight. As a result, much of the character's motivation is lost- when Olivier's Wyke plays mind games with Tindle, it's because he's entitled- no, duty-bound- by his position to do so, in order to put him squarely in his place. Without the class issues in play, the characters' gamesmanship becomes little more than dick-measuring, which is borne out in numerous distracting exchanges between the two ("Is that your car?" "Which one?" "The little one." "Yes." "Mine's the big one."). Likewise, the scenes with the inspector are seriously bobbled. SPOILER: While Mankiewicz was content to show the characters mostly in long shots, which accentuated the stagebound setup, Branagh pushes all the way in on his actors' faces, which causes the inspector's secret to have the exact opposite effect as it should. Mankiewicz's theatricality was ideal, underlining the nature of the inspector as a theatrical device. By comparison, Branagh's closeups on his face don't so much defy us figure out what's going on as they clue us by their very insistence that this guy who isn't listed in the opening credits and who we've never seen before now might not in fact be who he seems. It's a colossal miscalculation on the film's part, and consequently it never recovers. In the final reels, Branagh and Pinter tack on an additional act that delves into darker thematic territory, but it's both gratuitous and sort of ugly, with an unfortunate attempt to sway the audience's sympathies towards one of the two men, when part of the deliciousness of the original was how these guys, for all their differences, were kindred spirits in gamesmanship. So, for the second time in as many days, I find myself taking a movie to task for taking itself too damned seriously. And shouldn't Sleuth, of all movies, be fun? Rating: 3 out of 10.

1 comment:

Jason_alley2 said...

Totally agreed, hated it - though I can't compare it to the original because I haven't seen it!

I will, though - everything I read tells me how great (and different) it is when compared to this terrible remake.