I’d be curious: did Michael Caine and Jude Law talk about Alfie on the set of Sleuth? Did they compare performances? Did they get drunk and watch the Stallone version of Get Carter? Or did they just stare at each other threateningly until Kenneth Branagh shouted “Roll camera”?
The Sleuth remake sounds like quite a compelling proposition at first: one of the grand old English actors facing off against a glittering, promising young guy. (Admittedly, Jude Law hasn’t quite followed up on the promise of his early films, has he?) Directed by Kenneth “Four fucking hours of Shakespeare” Branagh, who has a deft hand behind the camera when he isn’t trying to showcase his own thespian ego. And the original play and film adapted by Harold Pinter, master of intellectual menace and keeper of the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.
In practice, though, Sleuth is dead as a film. It has occasional moments where the individual contributors flare up and come to life, but it’s like putting an electrical current into a dead frog. Its twitches are easily mistaken for signs of life, but the poor little green guy is still as dead as, well, a dead frog.
Michael Caine probably fares best. He slips into the Pinteresque dialogue with ease and manages to make it sound relatively natural. Caine comes closest to convincing us that the film has a beating heart – but even he cannot sustain this against the wooden staginess of the proceedings. The script might work on stage, with the immediacy that a live performance brings to things, but if some scripts jump off the page, this movie lurches back onto the page.
I’ve liked Jude Law in a number of films, first and foremost Gattaca, The Wisdom of Crocodiles and The Talented Mr Ripley, and he’s got moments in Sleuth where he shines – but all too many of his line deliveries sound as if he imagined that This Is What Pinter’s Supposed To Sound Like. It gets worse in the second part of the film, after the first major twist, which I felt was badly handled; I sat there wondering whether it’s a genuine twist or whether the film suddenly decided to go all post-modern on us. I would have prefered the latter, since the twist made the characters even less credible. In any case, after half an hour Law turns up as a new character, but while his body language is convincing, his accent couldn’t be more fake. Yes, he’s supposed to be fake, but if it’s so transparent to us that this is Jude Law in disguise, it makes the Michael Caine character look stupid if he doesn’t get it… and since the film tries to convince us that the characters aren’t stupid while showing them doing utterly stupid things, it’s difficult to take anything happening on screen seriously.
The third act introduces a homoerotic component that seems to have popped in from a different film altogether. While the casting should work brilliantly here – Law has always had a peculiarly feminine quality – seeing Michael Caine trying to get his menacing paws on the younger man rarely feels anything other than awkward because the development comes out of left field, from another game, in a different country altogether.
Would the film have worked better for me if I’d seen the original? Perhaps – but I doubt it. Branagh’s main mistake in the end was to think that the staginess of the script could be counteracted by ‘clever’ (read: obvious) cinematographic choices. However, no weird camera angle will distract from the script and the performances if they’re geared towards the stage. Seeing this live might have been riveting. Seeing the film? Well. Dead frog.