Saturday, October 13, 2007

Artificiality


I may complain about remakes of films that I love, but what am I supposed to do when I haven’t seen the original? Like with 3:10 TO YUMA? Or like now, with SLEUTH, one of those many films I’ve been meaning to get around to seeing for a long time. So I never did. I’m not perfect. On the other hand I have seen DEATHTRAP and, as it turns out, the two pieces share a few things in common, not the least of which is its use of Michael Caine as a writer who we gradually learn more about as the plot progresses. I think it’s entirely possible that DEATHTRAP was the first Michael Caine movie I ever saw in a theater and it’s interesting to consider it the hidden link between these two versions of SLEUTH. Even if I still haven’t seen the original.

But for now I’m faced with the remake of SLEUTH and I still had an interest in seeing it mostly because my reaction is “Hey! New Michael Caine thriller!” and really, how many more of those are we going to get? So Caine is now playing the old Laurence Olivier role and in the old Michael Caine role is Jude Law, also known as The Other Alfie.

Everything I’ve read indicates that this is a near-total rewrite by Harold Pinter from the original script by Anthony Shaffer, but either way the plot is simple: Andrew Wyke (Caine) is visited by Milo Tindle (Law) at his country home. Tindle, we learn, is now seeing Wyke’s wife. Wyke is hesitant to agree to a divorce but has a proposition for Tindle which he thinks will satisfy everyone.


There’s an intriguing idea there, set in the ultra-sleek, high-tech home of famous author Wyke, and right away you can sense director Kenneth Branagh working overtime to transform this into a visual piece of work. However, the degree of artificiality becomes an issue almost immediately, both in the set design and certain plot surprises. I found myself wondering why Law’s character would agree to certain things that Caine suggests, when anyone could see from the word go that he can’t be trusted. The big plot twist, one that I gather is well known by those who have seen the original, is beyond obvious to the point where it’s open to question how it could possibly even be presented as a surprise. On the other hand, it’s the kind of twist (I’m deliberately avoiding specifics here) that wouldn’t be a problem when presented in a stage play, where the degree of artificiality can be presented in a different context.

So the problem with this new film isn’t that it’s artificial. The problem is that SLEUTH, at least this version of it, seems expressly designed to be a play and nothing else. There’s nothing wrong with that—certain plays are meant to be plays, films are meant to be films and so on. I’m even reminded of the suggestion Julie Walters had in EDUCATING RITA, yet another Michael Caine film, when she has to write an essay about how to deal with the staging problems of PEER GYNT she offers, “Do it on the radio”. The staging problems of SLEUTH seem like they would be solved by saying, “Do it on the stage, don’t bother with a film version.” The basic flaws in SLEUTH ’07 ultimately mean that no matter how well it was shot and directed—and to be fair, some of it is very well shot and directed—it could almost have been considered a failure before the first frame was shot.


That said, there is a good deal of enjoyment in the Pinter dialogue, as well as Patrick Doyle’s harshly symphonic score. There’s some very good sound work as well, with certain effects used to startle to maximum effect. And there is the man who is Michael Caine of course terrific in this role. But even better, he’s being directed by Kenneth Branagh, an actor himself, who at times seems to be taking pleasure in exploring how many ways he can shoot the screen legend in front of him within the frame. There’s a long-held medium profile shot of the actor which comes at a key moment and it’s a work of beauty. And there’s the joy of seeing Michael Caine, the star of GET CARTER himself, once again holding a gun on somebody while yelling at them. SLEUTH ’07 doesn’t entirely work, and judging by the audience of about twelve at the Arclight yesterday, it won’t be around for long. But there are pleasures to be found while it lasts.

4 comments:

rh said...

Caine.Law.Branagh.Pinter.

I'm still chuckling to myself about the way the names are displayed on the poster, but it seems that alone would make it clear as to what one should expect from the movie.

wyndham said...

Sleuth is a creaky old theatrical experience - and indeed was intended to be so. Every now and again on the West End stage, some suave old television has-been from a long-cancelled television series is wheeled out to star opposite a nouveau young buck from a recently-cancelled television series in a limited run - the curtain comes down just before the audience collectively realises they've seen the film. The Olivier/Caine movie worked because the generational class conflict inherent in the plot was reflected in the oppositional acting skills of the two two carpet chewers on screen, both sublime movie actors; the new version has a sublime movie actor and Jude Law to recommend it. God knows what Pinter could have done to the script but he specialises, of course, in two men inexplicably menacing each other so it could be interesting. I hope Inspector Doppler has made the cut, though.

Although I'm tempted, I think it's one to wait for on pay-for-view.

Jeremy Richey said...

I have been curious about this version mostly because I love both Caine and Law. Thanks for the intelligent look at it, I'll be curious to see how it plays for me.

Mr. Peel said...

I believe that Inspector Doppler does make an appearance in this film, but I will say no more about that. I don't think there's any real class conflict on display in this new version beyond rich older man and not-rich younger man. One of these days I'll have to see the original and figure out if I just should have seen that one to begin with.