A star cast and a script by Pinter can't save Kenneth Branagh's twitchy remake of "Sleuth"

The Telegraph, 23 November 2007
By Tim Robey

There's nothing wrong with resurrecting a museum piece such as "Sleuth" if it's done in a spirit of winking homage - and if the cat-and-mouse tease of the plot is kept.

Anthony Shaffer's 1970 play, adapted into the 1972 film with Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier, is a clever three-act parlour game in which two romantic rivals act circles around each other. Even then, the pointed absence of Olivier's trophy wife clued you in to some pretty dated sexual politics.

The new adaptation by Harold Pinter makes what should have been a sly attempt to update these. Caine swaps roles, bringing an edge of sinister camp to the part of cuckolded suspense novelist Andrew Wyke, who has prepared an elaborate trap for his wife's lover.

Watching him face off with Jude Law, as dilettantish hairdresser and part-time actor Milo Tindle, offers the tasty prospect of a pas de deux between two Alfies - each rake ought to have met his match.

Instead, they butt heads with Kenneth Branagh's camerawork. Pinter's script hasn't been so much directed as shot to smithereens - through black-and-white CCTV monitors, via cameras perched on the rooftops of Wyke's preposterous gated mansion, and from every conceivable wacky angle.

It's all meant to be dead tech. But it stifles any tension instantly, and the details don't add up. The main mystery is how Caine controls his sliding bookcases using what's quite obviously an Apple Mac remote control - mine only cues up iTunes.

Branagh's least confident films have always been his most mannered and frenetic - watch "Dead Again", or try to - but here it feels more than ever as though he simply doesn't trust his script or stars.

Caine, so often aloof and director-proof, grandstands watchably for two acts, but looks visibly embarrassed by the big twist. And Law can't stay still for a second: playing a struggling thesp, he too often embodies one.

Their battle of wits stalls so early and alarmingly you wonder what Pinter's up to - is this an act of literary sabotage, a facetious "Sleuth" spoof? If so, the joke's on us.

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