'Sleuth' Finds Itself a Pinter Film

Chicago Sun Times, 13 September 2007
By Roger Ebert

TORONTO -- Everyone, including me, was under the impression that Kenneth Branagh's new film "Sleuth" was a remake of the 1972 film. Same situation: Rich thriller writer is visited in his country house by a man who is having affair with his wife. Same outcome: They argue, man is killed. Same visit: police detective. Same so forth and so on.

But hang on, I thought, watching the film at Monday night's Toronto Film Festival gala, I didn't realize the screenplay was by Sir Harold Pinter. What had reduced the Nobel Prize-winning dramatist to adapting old, if good, movies? But then, in the opening moments, as the novelist (Sir Michael Caine) greets his visitor (Jude Law), there is an edgy exchange.

Novelist: "Is that your car?"

Visitor: "On the left, right."

Novelist: "Yes, that's my car on the right. My car is bigger than yours."

My memory of the 1972 movie was not crystal-clear, but that dialog didnít ring a bell. Neither did any of the other dialog. It didnít sound like the Anthony Shaffer play, or his screenplay. It sounded-- well, Pinteresque. And did the two men go through a little homosexual role-playing the first time around? The earlier movie starred Sir Laurence Olivier as the novelist (apparently you have to be knighted to play the role), and, what do you know, Michael Caine as the visitor. Even after 35 years I think I would have remembered Olivier and Caine being gay together.

Talking to Branagh, Caine and Law on Tuesday afternoon, I got the statistics: Only one line ("Itís a game!") from the original screenplay is used in Pinterís. Pinter did not see the movie, read the screenplay once, sat down and wrote the original situation as a screenplay by Harold Pinter. And what Branagh and his actors have made is a Pinter film, transposing the outline of the original material into an altogether quirkier, weirder, diabolical result.

In 1972 we were asked to be absorbed by the plot. In 2007 we are asked to be absorbed by the characters and how they talk and what they say. What both films share is ambiguity about the material: What do the novelist and the visitor really think about each other? Whatís really going on here? With Pinter, as always, thatís really the question.

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