"I have only made this letter so long," Blaise Pascal famously wrote in his Lettres provinciales, "because I have not had time to make it shorter." The cinematic re-creators of Sleuth--screenwriter Harold Pinter and director Kenneth Branagh--have had 35 years to improve upon Joseph Mankiewicz's 1972 version and, if nothing else, they have corrected its greatest flaw: length. Mankiewicz's film ran to nearly two hours and twenty minutes--an absurd duration for a clever but ephemeral drawing-room mystery. Anthony Shaffer, who adapted the original script from his own hit play, was evidently unwilling to kill his babies.
Pinter suffers no such compunction. Despite the addition of an entirely new third act, his screenplay whizzes along: Filmgoers will be scraping the sticky stuff from their shoes and making for the exits in under an hour and a half. Gone from the earlier adaptation are many of its broader sillinesses--the extended cavorting in a clown suit, the animatronic mannequins, the repetitious references to fictional detective "St. John Lord Merridew," etc.
In their place, unfortunately, Pinter adds sillinesses that don't even recognize themselves as silly. This is a film that imagines that if its characters utter the word "fuck" frequently enough and trade an escalating series of schoolyard sexual taunts, it must be somehow dark and daring. It's not. It's an adolescent's idea of a grown-up movie.
The new Sleuth's premise and protagonists are unchanged: Andrew Wyke is a wealthy mystery writer who invites his wife's young lover, Milo Tindle, out to his country estate for a little chat. In a likeable bit of stunt-casting, Michael Caine, who played Tindle in the original (to Laurence Olivier's Wyke) has ripened into the elder role; his Tindle is Jude Law--the second time, following the remake of Alfie, that Law has inherited one of Sir Michael's early roles. Wyke tells Tindle that he's welcome to the wife, but adds that he fears she will prove too expensive for the young man to keep. As he doesn't want her crawling back to him in a few months' time, Wyke proposes a solution: Tindle will "steal" some valuable jewels from the house and fence them abroad. Tindle will get the lady and the swag, Wyke will get the insurance money, and everyone will wind up happy.
Except they won't, as anyone not named "Milo" would intuit in an instant. Wyke's proposal is a trap, a chance to humiliate Tindle or worse, and it will be followed by other traps, with the two men alternating as victim and victimizer. It's a sharp little setup, and done rightly--as it mostly was by Mankiewicz--it gives two exceptional actors a fine chance to flaunt their gifts.
Sadly, Pinter and Branagh seem a little too eager to flaunt their own. To begin with, they have altered Wyke's home, the setting of virtually the entire film, from a baronial country manor full of games and bric-a-brac to a high-tech mausoleum so stuffed with remote-controlled contrivances--ubiquitous surveillance cameras, slab-like secret doors, a gas fireplace worthy of a crematorium, swiveling light-projectors on the ceiling--that Bill Gates and Maxwell Smart would be sick with envy. This may seem no more than a modest updating, but it immediately signals a shift in tone, away from the quaint, Agatha Christie atmosphere of the original and toward something more entombed and infernal. The change is immediately apparent in the dialogue as well, where the awkward icebreaker Shaffer put in Wyke's mouth, "I understand you want to marry my wife," has been sharpened to "I understand you're fucking my wife."
Pinter and Branagh clearly intend such alterations to make their film fiercer. But rendering the original's sexual subtext as actual text serves mostly serves to defang it. The very first scene is a bit of (deliberately) comic Freudian yardsticking about the relative size of Wyke and Tindle's cars: "Is that yours?"; "Yes"; "The little one?"; "Yes"; "Not the big one?"; "No"; "That's right, the big one's mine." The problem is that, even as the film darkens and lives are threatened, the back-and-forth remains comparably juvenile. When Tindle fears for his life at gunpoint, his emasculation is made so explicit as to be laughable: Whimpering with terror, he promises that he not only doesn't love Wyke's wife, but indeed doesn't like women at all, cataloguing the alternative genders and species--I kid you not! sheep, pigs, you name it--with which he would prefer to copulate. Who would plead for his life in this way? And, more to the point, what vengeful adult would take real satisfaction in his enemy declaring a false attraction to livestock? It's a fourteen-year-old's idea of abject humiliation.