Sleuth

Kenneth Branagh and Harold Pinter's 25-years-later spin on playwright Anthony Shaffer's wicked dissection of a testosterone-poisoned cat-and-mouse game over a woman is a bitter disappointment, despite the flashy stunt casting: Michael Caine, who played the young upstart who's stolen a rich man's trophy wife in the original, is now in the role of the cuckolded...read more

Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
Rating:

Kenneth Branagh and Harold Pinter's 25-years-later spin on playwright Anthony Shaffer's wicked dissection of a testosterone-poisoned cat-and-mouse game over a woman is a bitter disappointment, despite the flashy stunt casting: Michael Caine, who played the young upstart who's stolen a rich man's trophy wife in the original, is now in the role of the cuckolded older husband.

Unemployed actor Milo Tindle (Jude Law) wants to marry his girlfriend, Maggie (Eve Channing), but her much-older husband, world-famous crime novelist Andrew Wyke (Caine), refuses to give her a divorce. So Milo presents himself at Wyke's sleek, ultramodern house in the country in hopes of persuading the spiteful, possessive, manipulative Wyke to be reasonable. Milo thinks he can outwit Wyke, while Wyke is supremely confident that he can bring this smug whippersnapper to heel. The battle of wits begins with the obligatory unpleasantries: Milo has never read Wyke's books, Wyke insists Maggie said Milo was a hairdresser — if he's an actor, why has Wyke never heard of him? Wyke remarks on the smallness of Milo's equipment — his car, of course — and Milo says Maggie disparaged Wyke's lovemaking. And then it's down to business: Wyke has a proposition. He'll grant Maggie a divorce but won't make a financial settlement. And Maggie, he says avuncularly, has become accustomed to a lifestyle that a hairdresser — sorry, unemployed actor — will be hard-put to afford. But if Milo were to "steal" some expensive jewelry Wyke once bought for Maggie and sell it to a Dutch fence with whom Wyke has already made arrangements, everyone would come out a winner: Milo would have some money and Wyke wouldn't lose any, courtesy of the insurance.

To say more would spoil the surprise, and Shaffer's Sleuth is nothing but the sum of its surprises, which is in no way a criticism. Shaffer intended to spin the musty English-manor mystery until it could again amaze and amuse, and succeeded admirably. Pinter's overhaul ditches most of the arch, self-consciously clever dialogue; makes Milo an actor (in the original, he really was a hairdresser — ooh, clever); radically retools the third act, in which an inspector calls — New Scotland Yard's Detective Inspector Eddie Black, whose burry Northern accent and insinuating manner make every word seem a veiled threat — and adds an ugly jolt of homophobia. The result is unfortunate: Pinter can't find emotional depths that just aren't there, but dispenses with most of what made the original entertaining in the search for them — it's hard to believe the man who scripted THE SERVANT (1963) and ACCIDENT (1967) could be so coarse and obvious. Caine and Law go at it like tigers, but in the end they're just chasing their own tails.

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