Thursday, September 13, 2007

TIFF 2007: "Sleuth"

(Gala Presentation)
(2007, USA, 86 minutes)
Written by: Harold Pinter, based on the play by Anthony Shaffer
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Michael Caine, Jude Law

Anthony Shaffer’s Tony-winning 1970 theatrical staple (somewhere right now, I’m sure, a community theatre company is planning a production) has been given a 21st century makeover by three generations of British cinematic royalty: Kenneth Branagh stays behind the camera this time to put Michael Caine and Jude Law through this chatty clash of ego titans, this time with a script revamped by esteemed poet/playwright (and recent Nobel Prize recipient) Harold Pinter. Caine and Law generate the combustible energy a chamber piece like this demands, but by the end it’s all Pinter’s show--which may be a good or a bad thing, depending on your take on Pinter and reverence for Shaffer’s original text.

Pinter has preserved much of the setup of the original, with a few noteable tweaks: Andrew Wyke (Caine) is a rich and famous novelist who specializes in crime fiction who lives alone in his cavernous country manor, which houses a collection of priceless art and is protected by a high-tech security system. Wyke and his wife Maggie have become separated because of her affair with dandyish struggling actor Milo Tindle (Law), a betrayal that delights the reclusive author. His main concern is that young Milo won’t be able to maintain Maggie’s lavish lifestyle, which will drive her back home.
Having arranged a face-to-face, Wyke confronts Tindle with his knowledge of the trysts and proposes a stunt that will mutually benefit them both: if Tindle were to steal some his wife’s prized jewels and sell them in Amsterdam for a handsome profit, Wyke could claim the insurance winfall. Tindle, dim, desperate, but utterly convinced of his unheralded genius as a performer, agrees to play along. In the process of the staged nocturnal break-in, Wyke betrays Tindle and, well--suffice to say the plot continues with various double-crosses and reversals and is far too byzantine to recount here.
Besides, to reveal anymore would take this into serious SPOILER territory and ruin the element of surprise. Since this is not a literal restaging of Shaffer’s original play, some liberties have been taken that will surprise even those who know the original play or film by heart. Wyke doesn’t have a mistress, Tindle’s now an actor, and no one dons a clown suit. Tindle has planted evidence to frame Wyke in the event of their scheme going awry, and the whole affair does attract the attentions of a sleazy police inspector. That’s all you’ll get from me.

Branagh demonstrated himself a skilled visual director from the get-go with his definitive Henry V adaptation, and his followups Dead Again and Hamlet showed invention and assurance that betrayed his (then) relative inexperience. Here, he relies more on his stagecraft to keep this hermetically-sealed two-hander from degenerating into an inert talk-fest.

He’s smart to keep the camera back and let the actors do the work. Caine, of course, portrayed Milo Tindle in the original film version, and it was his idea to revisit the play and take on Laurence Olivier’s role. He personally selected Jude Law for Tindle, presumably having been impressed with Law’s portrayal of his own Alfie Elkins in Charles Shyer’s recent remake of Alfie. At one point, Law’s Tindle cheekily even asks Caine’s Wyke: “What’s it all about?”, which can’t be a coincidence (assuming this trend continues, can we expect to one day see Law in a remake of The Hand?).

Both actors are clearly having fun throughout facing off through jut jaws and snarling teeth as they spar through various levels of Wyke’s compound, which instead of the old money, game-filled mansion of the original, is now a giant Skinner Box of cobalt and cool blues, with neon splashes that change with the psychological vibe of the moment--like something out a Saw sequel directed by Michael Mann. One can’t imagine a novelist creating a lauded body of work in a such a chilly mausoleum, one presumes that Wyke dipped into his hefty finances to outfit his home with such elaborate traps and devices purely to mess with the randy philanderer's pretty blond head.

There are problems earlier, too, as appearance of the sleazy inspector leads to a twist which is so obvious that I’m surprised the ease of its detection wasn’t an actual plot point (at the risking of committing a SPOILER, let’s just say that there are only five performers credited, and one appears fleetingly as a television image and the other is an off-camera female voice).

This version is much shorter than the original (just 86 minutes, while Joseph L. Mankiewicz's’s 1972 adaptation ran more than two hours), but despite its brisker pace, nastier edge and surprising lack of Pinter pauses, it builds to a disappointing coda. Pinter unfortunately bogs down the climax with a broadly-etched bedroom showdown that throws the Freud into overdrive and brings the homoerotic undercurrents to the forefront, affording viewers the unique opportunity to witness the androgynous Law in semi-drag but deflating the cat-and-mouse frissons that have kept us on edge with a near audible pfft. Such explicit confrontation would have been scandalous around the time of Pinter’s The Birthday Party or Old Times, but today plods as overwrought and obvious—perversely, making this 35th anniversary reimagining somehow more dated than the original.

©2007 Robert J. Lewis