Male Stereotypes Steal the Show in Pinter's ["Sleuth"]

News Letter, 23 November 2007

Harold Pinter reportedly didn't watch the original film adaptation of "Sleuth" when he was writing the screenplay for this modern version, so it's probably misleading to call it a remake.

Based on an Anthony Shaffer stage play, the 1972 movie featured Laurence Oliver in the role of elderly writer Andrew Wyke, with Michael Caine as the young Milo Tindle. This time round, Caine is the older man and Jude Law - who is also one of the film's producers - the young upstart in a taught two-hander.

Tindle is the man who is sleeping with Myke's wife, and calls at the author's home - a character in itself - to ask for a divorce. The premise is disarmingly simple, but what follows is a battle of wills as the men clash intellectually and, at times, physically, in a bid to assert their authority.

It's classic stuff for anyone who admires Harold Pinter's work - the fraught masculinity oozes through this film, with the never-seen wife fuelling a primal duel between Caine and Law. And, as you would expect, there is an overriding sense of menace.

As the characters converse but do not necessarily communicate, and descend into their respective male stereotypes, what comes across is a film packed with allegory.

Jude Law and Michael Caine relish their roles, part of which is character driven and partly out of a sense of glee. What could have so easily been two caricatures end up as three dimensional figures, but they never lose the brutal machismo. Kenneth Branagh directs with a lightness of touch that lets a weighty script and two dominating leads evolve on their own terms. He uses the camera as a voyeur on the unfolding action, with scenes shot from unusual angles and strange viewpoints.

As a result, the words and pictures sometimescome across as two separate entities, not in a disjoined way but in a fashion that contributes to the overall sense of unease. But it can be jarring at times. "Sleuth" is essentially a stage play on the big screen, and it sometimes wrestles with the sense of intimacy as it attempts to subvert the language of film.

In the cavernous surroundings of the stately home setting, and with two actors hamming it up, the film is set on the boundaries of reality. Sometimes it crosses the line and undoes the suspension of disbelief it had spent so long creating.

But what it depends on is the two characters' ability to needle each other, and this film has that in spades. It finds humour in the darkest of places and seeks to unnerve the viewer, not necessarily in an annoying way, but in a masterly fashion. "Sleuth" is a work packed with the kind of sparkling moments which will linger long in the memory.

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