Charm Is No Match for Wit in Law-Caine Starrer

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 7 March 2008
By Rito Asilo
**Thanks, Jude

It’s easy to imaging Kenneth Branagh’s noirish retelling of Joseph Mankiewicz’ 1972 mind-bender, “Sleuth,” as a theatrical two-hander, as it was originally intended by playwright Anthony Shaffer in 1970

Avoiding Hollywood’s penchant for raucous noise and one-dimensional characters in suspense-thrillers, Branagh, tapping his familiarity with both theater and film, skillfully engages his movie’s crisply-paced 86-minute running time with organically blocked scenes and wittily rendered dialogue to examine an intriguing premise that is moved solely by two competing protagonists:

Drawn together by circumstance, successful mystery novelist, Andrew Wyke (Caine), lures handsome hairdresser cum aspiring actor, Milo Tindle (Law)—who happens to be the lover of Andrew’s wife, Marguerite—to his high-tech palatial manor in the English suburbs. In no time, the aging writer convinces the younger man to steal his wife’s million pounds’ worth of insured jewelry.

But, seeing how Milo balks at the plan, Andrew—who loves games and gadgets—explains how he sees the “staged” burglary as a win-win situation for the three of them: Even if the two-timing pair runs away with the expensive stash, Andrew nevertheless gets to evade paying alimony—if his wife files for divorce! Soon, however, the stakes get even higher.

There are many elements at play in Branagh’s cerebral thriller—especially once you get past the implausibility of Milo conveniently falling for Andrew’s bait. All throughout the film, the roles of prey and predator move in a constant flux, which keeps the exposition intriguingly dynamic!

As the production examines infidelity, culpability and sexual politics, it likewise shows that wit almost always trounces charm. Moreover, there’s another element that seethes through the movie’s narrative cracks: Homoerotic tension.

On point of performance, Caine and Law are evenly matched: Wisdom and familiarity inform the 74-year-old Caine’s portrayal, while the 35-year-old Law has consistently shown his mastery at playing opportunistic, and often narcissistic pretty boys—like his acclaimed performances in 1997’s “Wilde,” in 1999’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and in 2004’s “Closer.”

It’s interesting to note, though, that the 1970 play on which this movie is based was partly inspired by one of Shaffer’s close friends: Stephen Sondheim! The well-loved composer is said to have an intense interest in game-playing.

Two years and 1,222 performances later, the Tony Award-winning play was adapted for the screen, starring Laurence Olivier as Wyke and Caine as the opportunistic Tindle!

But, what makes Andrew and Milo’s conflict particularly engaging is the fact that the duel is between an actor and a writer: Who is smarter, then—the novelist who conveniently hides behind his powerful words, or the performer who brings them to life?

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