The Times, 24 November 2007
Remember "Sleuth"? Anthony Shaffer's stage play was a shocking wonder in 1970. It was a sensation in 1972, when Laurence Olivier tore Michael Caine to pieces in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's vicious screen version. Now the wheel has turned. Caine has come back as the rich and bitter crime writer, Andrew Wyke - originally played by Olivier - and Jude Law is the handsome young punk, Milo, whom Caine intends to squash. The film is set in several concrete rooms as brutally modern as the White Cube gallery. Harold Pinter has adapted Shaffer's thriller, and Kenneth Branagh directs.
Directing is not Branagh's natural forte, but this is a gamble impossible to pass up. His 2007 update of "Sleuth" is admirably urban and utterly loyal to Pinter. The script is rude, pithy and so metaphorically organic that you can almost hear the actors munch their lines.
Caine's poisonous Wyke lives in refrigerated splendour. Law's cheeky Italian dilettante has a greedy eye on Wyke's wealth as well as his adulterous wife. But there are desperate creaks in the Edwardian plot. There isn't a single scene that bears real scrutiny. The result is that great chunks of this update look absurd.
Watch and learn, sunshine
Branagh ends up filming a comic game of snakes and ladders rather than a lethal battle of egos. Ultimately, the film is far more revealing and truthful about Pinter. No one does sauce quite like H.P. The tennis allusions and the sheer quantity of large whiskies are clues. So too are the stylistic tics: the verbal fencing, the menacing pauses, the male aggression, the unexpected whimsy.
This "Sleuth" opens more peepholes into Pinter's psyche than it ever will Shaffer's. The rip between the dying writer and the sexy actor is a sour reminder. Pinter doesn't have time for Shaffer's 1940s decency. Law's young turk is dangerously bisexual. Caine's stone-cold writer is wounded to the heart by betrayal as much as revenge. This is the kind of intimate physicality that Pinter pumps into Shaffer's script. But it will take a better director than Branagh to tease it into the real world.