How quite to approach this remake/reimagining of the Anthony Schaffer play, updated by Harold Pinter? Caine himself, in his book The Elephant to Hollywood, claims that this film is not a remake of the original film.
As much as I get annoyed by the word “reimagining”, sadly this is how Sleuth can be described. Yes it is the same story, but it’s a different version. Playsbrought to the screen are not referred to as ‘remakes’. Kenneth Branagh’s Sleuth is not a remake of Joseph L Mankiewicz’s Sleuth any more than his Henry V is a remake of the Olivier version. (Though there is a nice link here in that Branagh was nominated for playing Olivier in My Week With Marilyn and Olivier was in the original Sleuth film).
Michael Caine was also in the original version of Sleuth, but this time he has switched roles. And he’s old enough to do so as this retelling still has the same age gap between the two leading gentlemen. The other lead role is played by Jude Law. Law, you may remember, also played Alfie, a remake of a film that starred Caine. So with Law shadowing Caine; and Branagh shadowing Olivier; and Caine shadowing, er, himself (and Olivier, sort of) it all seems like an elaborate Hollywood puzzle, and, as the title suggests, Sleuth deals in nothing if not puzzles.
This version may seem to have a very vulgar sense of humour at times. In the 2007 version, Wyke says “I understand you are fucking my wife” as opposed to the more polite 1972 line “I understand you are sleeping with my wife”. 2007’s is much more on the nose. Our gentlemen are still game to one each other up and beat around the bush, but they accent their points with dramatic statements and harsh remarks.
But there is also a sly sense of humour too; especially in Wyke who refers to Milo as a ‘hairdresser’ (although Milo tells us he is an actor). Wyke holds Milo at gunpoint, and says he would not ‘give his wife over to a hairdresser’ (causing Milo to protest) and later tells Inspector Black that Milo was a hairdresser. Any fan of the original will know that Milo was indeed a hairdresser, making for a cute, chuckle-worthy nod to the 1972 film.
Those with an ear for the dialogue will also spot at the beginning of the gun pointing that Law spouts the Alfie dialogue “What’s it all about?”
Law got a bit of media backlash for this film, although mainly it was aimed more to do with his personal life? I personally don’t see what the issue is here and think he’s an actor who has grown over the years. I remember first seeing Law in the Paul W S Anderson ram-raiding flick Shopping and feeling that he was just the worst performer ever. The film itself was a huge let down (great soundtrack though!). After that I saw some cringe-making Brit flicks, avoiding several others until his Oscar-nominated role in The Talented Mr Ripley. A flawed film; but at its strongest in the first half – mainly down to Law’s performance. He has been a bit hit and miss since, but really he fits this role very well. So well in fact I’d be interested to see if he’d come back in 20-30 years to redo the story again in the Wyke role with whatever upcoming new star of that day in the Milo role.
But in my opinion the poor schmuck who got the worst beating was Branagh. His choice of cold, minimalist, glass-and-metal interior design for the setting of this story got a real pounding from critics. But it’s for this completely different take that I love it so much. The first film is rich with props (toys, games, mazes) in an old mansion. This one is all modern and cold. Why on earth would I want to watch the exact same interior in this version? I think Branagh made a brave choice that paid off.
And look at how economically he works. He has shaved off the last third of the play and had it rewritten, ending the story much sooner that the original film. That one is over 130 minutes. This one runs in at around 88 minutes – over 40 minutes shorter. For a film set in one location with only two people doing a lot of talking, that is a lot of screen time!
Caine also made some brave choices – not least in a humiliating scene where he has to pose wearing his wife’s jewellery while held at gunpoint. The new third act also raises questions about the two men’s sexuality that are missing from the 1972 original. Is it all a power play? Or is Wyke really so pathetic that he is going to try his best to seduce Milo with material wealth to stop him From leaving? Wyke’s final humiliation as Milo rejects him with a coarse insult (which still has heavy hints homosexuality about it) sees Wyke resort to suicide. It is still open to interpretation as to if this is because of the humiliation itself or just because he doesn’t want Milo to get away with it. Caine plays it with nary a sense of triumph in his saddened, yet cold, expression.
Sleuth is a film that you can revisit and find new themes in its design and character portrayals. It’s a two-hander of two actors at the top of their games. In fact I think I have seen the 2007 version almost as many times as the original. I’m often end up watching both as I can’t stave off the urge to compare them and enjoy them both for what they are.
True – I do find the original wittier and richer, but the 2007 film by no means drops the ball and is worth watching. I would find it an interesting discussion with a true fan of the original film to tell me what it is that repels them so about this version. This is a film worthy of debate and, with some luck, destined for more of a cult status in years to come.