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.
Nor is the effort effective in making the story more contemporaneous by stripping the protagonist, mystery author Andrew Wyke of his status upon the pantheon of more traditional detective whodunnits and reformulating him as the writer of grittier, more profane mysteries. The resulting departure from the defense of generational (as well as class) differences of attitude deprives the narrative of one of it’s primary sources of conflict. The resulting elinimation of even a rudimentary class foundation for each character strips the scenario bare, leaving little but the exposed crude mechanics of the Tinker Toy plotting. Nor is there a plausible case made for sympathy toward either character as both emerge as equally callous, immoral, selfish and mean-spirited. Pinter’s reinterpretation presents the two main characters as being filled with the obnoxious satiation of their own cleverness; a cleverness that couldn’t possibly blossom outside of the morbid isolation chamber that is the film’s setting. When, by the glacial tone of the film, you are not encouraged to care about either of the main protagonists, it becomes fairly obvious that the gamesmanship at the heart of the play- as originally conceived -becomes, not a spirited match of cunning and wits, but a cruel and pointless meeting between two equally unpleasant antagonists for whom there is no apparent victory to which either might arrive.
The film is shot with the aura of a meat locker, with the camera deliberately and relentlessly employed in a dreary exercise in obfuscation of visual exposition. The film recaptures a little steam in what is the play’s second act with the appearance of the film’s reconceived investigating detective, a belligerently coarse agent of New Scotland Yard, but this portion of the film is short-lived and feels prematurely abbreviated as if the director couldn’t contain himself from taking a bow for introducing a modicum of energy into an otherwise moribund production. The setting has been importantly shifted from a stately Georgian manor house (a genuine character in itself) filled with objects defining Wyke’s obsessions, into a boxy manse of no character, which is supposed to have been decorated by Wyke’s wife Maggie, whose professional skills seem limited to the design of morgue drawer interiors. What is this setting supposed to reveal about Wyke, and why does so much of the production design seem to make sense only if it were specifically designed to be usable in the film’s plot? The performances contribute little in fleshing out the aridity of written characterization, with Michael Caine, so fine as Tindle in the original, finding no branch on which to take hold of the elder role, while Jude Law is inconsistent; best when assuming an eponymous role.
It is abundantly clear that Pinter’s reconception intends to move the mystery genre setting from its more traditional rooting which imposed the classicist schism between the two protagonists, to the far more graphically cynical, pathologically violent mysteries of today, and while there are ample creative excuses for such a transitional metamorphosis, the resultant scripting gives no indication that such a bold transition has been thought through, with the eventual motivational incitement being handed over to a unconvincing turn into homoeroticism which more lifted as a fleeting nod to an earlier Caine role (“Deathtrap”) than as a logical revelation of character. Hopefully Pinter can’t be suggesting at this late stage of his career that the very hint of homosexuality automatically imbues a character with a taint of deeper malevolence; for what seemed thematically novel in Losey’s “The Servant” now suggests prudery.