In their peculiar and particularly unsatisfying production of Anthony Shaffer’s play “Sleuth”, scenarist Harold Pinter and director Kenneth Branagh have fashioned not so much a reworking of the popular thriller, nor even merely a reinterpretation, but a savage evisceration that reduces a fizzy confection to mere bad faux Art. If Pinter’s adaptation is characterized by only the trace remains of the plot outline of the original, he seems quite content to stuff the empty carcass with his own signatory brand of elliptical, obtuse conversation and stony pauses. Compounding the felony is it is aesthetically matched- and then some -mise-en-scene, engulfing the action in a suffocating shroud of creeping, claustrophobic blue-tinged paralysis by the director and his cinematographer Haris Zambarlookos. Seldom has an entire filmmaking team seemed laser locked in perfect unison to the production of a singular vision so spectacularly wrongheaded on every visible level; a vision which encompasses not only a total substantive reconception of the original’s thematic core, but of the willful desire to deny entertainment. While there is nothing expressed wrong with the concept of remake by way of reinterpretation (this is actually preferable than a retread based solely upon commercially impelled creative sloth), it becomes fair critical game to question the reasoning compelling those responsible for said interpretive shift; especially with the marketing materials shamelessly s blaring BRANAGH….PINTER, as if the mere mention of the names were a generic signpost to a consumer guarantee, promising a cultural epiphany.
Beginning with a complete rewrite of the play’s text, Pinter has transformed a deliberately stylish cat-and-mouse into an exercise in groundless tedium that is under the miscalculated delusion that ham-fisted exchanges of smirky but witless japes are a substitution for cleverness. Even the conceptual set-up of an escalating game of wits is undone from the very start by placing the players are on an equitable footing (entirely foregoing the original’s blatant- but essential -subtext of classicism), as if both had enjoyed a prenumbetory insight into the script. Situations don’t arise from the nature flow and consequence of events, but, given the at the convenience even the plausibility of a necessary collapse is undone by the brevity (and thus intensity) of the set-up. What is the rush? Perhaps a realization the more extended the plotting, the more the danger of exposing the latent of transparency in the script’s trickery, which may explain but hardly excuses Branagh’s annoying penchant for distracting visual asides which fail to emphasize the obsessions of a particular character as did similar but more successful visual footnoting in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ 1972 version. In Branagh’s hands these diversions merely feel like ill-designed attempts at padding an empty scenario with a vacuous techno bric-a-brac.
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