Much as Kenneth Branagh seems to have built his career emulating Laurence Olivier – even going so far as playing the man himself in the recent My Week With Marilyn – Jude Law has done the same but to a lesser degree by dipping in and out of Michael Caine’s back catalogue. This is the point where all that history comes together.
Is he, or isn’t he?
Crime novelist Andrew Wyke receives a visit at his isolated country home from Milo Tindle, the man Wyke’s wife left him for. He has come to request that Wyke divorce his wife so the two will be free to make a life together. Escalating one-upmanship ensues.
Back in 1970, Anthony Shaffer (writer of The Wicker Man) wrote the play Sleuth. Two years later, Shaffer himself adapted it for the screen with Michael Caine as Tindle and Laurence Olivier as Wyke, directed by the legendary Joseph L Mankiewicz. This film is a new version of the play, as opposed to a remake of the film, only this time Caine takes the role of the older Wyke and Jude Law plays Tindle. The only other on-screen appearance in the film is a brief sequence of Wyke watching a man being interviewed on television: this is a cameo by the screenwriter, Harold Pinter. Director Kenneth Branagh pulls out all the stops and all the tricks to try to turn this into a movie, but at its dark, dark heart this is pure theatre; 81 minutes (plus credits) of two intelligent, witty and devious men screwing with each other1.
Tindle actually visits Wyke twice in the film, the second time three days after the first. Both visits play out in real time and are completely enthralling. The characters themselves refer to the events as a tennis match, with the first two sets going one each and the third to be the decider, but I disagree. This is boxing. The first round bell rings the moment Wyke opens his front door, and the two start circling and jabbing, testing each other’s weaknesses before pulling out the big punches and going for the K.O. The last 15 minutes or so are played much more ambiguously than the rest of the film however; more open to interpretation. Through (almost) the whole movie to that point Wyke has a look of superiority, of condescension, in his eyes but that becomes more like desperation at the end. Tindle seems to have the upper hand, preening around the house the way he does. But how much of that is real? I can’t help but wonder if the climax would be stronger if it was more clear-cut. Sometimes that uncertainty is welcome of course, but here I’m not so sure. While the outcome is not certain until it happens (at least to someone with no prior knowledge) the actions and motivations of the two men are, right up to that final act. It might be sacrilegious to say this about Harold Pinter, but it seems just a tad underwritten.
I just have a couple more issues to point out, and a confession. I find it difficult to believe that a man as clearly obsessive about his surroundings as Wyke would still have a broken skylight after three days, since in England it would certainly have rained at least once or twice in that time. I am also mildly troubled by the availability of handguns in rural England, enough to make me glad I live in Scotland. Now here’s the confession: just like Pinter himself when he started work on the screenplay, I came to this film today completely unsullied. I haven’t seen or read Shaffer’s play, nor have I seen the 1972 movie. I realise this goes against my self-imposed rule for remakes, but I’m using the Let Me In defence2. Hey, it’s my rule and I can dodge it all I want. With such a deliberately obfuscating story, you can argue that it might be better to come to it cold. Instead of enjoying the film (or not) on its own merit, I would have known most of the beats ahead of time. Try as I might not to admit it, I would have been judging the film constantly as an exercise in adaptation instead of as its own entity. I am curious to see the 1972 film now, though I might wait until I have forgotten this version first.
1And I mean that in a good way. So many movies these days come with a hundred and one things that a bad actor can hide behind. Things like giant explosions, huge ensembles, big robots from outer space that turn into trucks… In a word: spectacle. Now I love spectacle as much as the next guy (hell, I recently pre-booked a cinema ticket for the first time ever, for the first screening of The Avengers in IMAX 3D) but it can be like eating a Big Mac for dinner every day. It’s tasty and all, though you might forget how good a chateaubriand can be.
2This states that since the film is (or claims to be) a new adaptation of the original source material, it doesn’t count as a remake of the first movie. And speaking of Let Me In, it is winging its way to me from Lovefilm as we speak. You can expect to see that review up sometime in the next few days.