Thursday, November 29, 2007

SLEUTH (2007) - an alpha gamma movie

Kenneth Branagh's new adaptation of SLEUTH stands on the shoulders of a giant and boxes his ears. It is an adaptation that aggressively throws off the look, feel and subject matter of its original and fails and succeeds in large measures.

The original movie was adapted by Anthony Shaffer from his own play and featured an elegant, enjoyable battle of wits between an arrogant aristo crime writer called Wyke (Olivier) and a "jumped up pantry boy" who is sleeping with Wyke's wife (Caine.) Makiewicz' direction was simple and stagey - allowing the actors and the script to do their work.

In Branagh's version, the script has been written by Harold Pinter. It looses all lightness and malovolent wit and becomes a heavy-handed obvious clunking sort of thing. There is no needling - just a sort of simple play-ground bragging of the "my car is bigger than your car" kind. Highly unedifying. Michael Caine moves from the up-start to the older man character and replaces Olivier's bumptious arrogance with a sort of heavy brooding. It's not a lot of fun to watch. Jude Law takes over the Caine character and in that character is stiff and self-conscious and highly unconvincing. Which leaves the direction. Branagh has decided to gut out the tudor interior and replace it with an aggressively modern interior design powered by hi-tech CCTV. Unlike Mankiewicz, he is going to use the power that the medium of cinema gives him with odd camera angles. Much as the conch symbolised authority in Lord of the Flies, the iPod remote symbolises power here. I found the use of CCTV visuals and the extreme production design incredibly distracting and heavy-handed. It took me a good hour of this film's short run-time to actually focus on the action. I also disliked Branagh's cheap insider jokes. Do we really need Jude Law to ask Michael Caine, "what's it all about?" Do we really need him to appropriate the manic laugh of the wind-up toy in the 1972 film? And is Law in that black leather coat meant to be referencing Gigolo Joe from A.I.?

So, for the most part, this movie is an admirably grand failure. In other words, it fails because of too much ambition and too many new ideas, rather than because of laziness and indifference. (See GOOD LUCK CHUCK). But I did like two things very much. First, I thought Law, in a small section near the end of the movie, known to all those who've seen the original, was very convincing. Second, I very much liked the final twenty minutes. The sexual tension was palpable and for the first time I was genuinely intrigued and thrilled by the script and performances. So, an alpha gamma movie overall.

SLEUTH played Venice and Toronto 2007 and was released earlier this year in Spain, the US, Israel, Italy, Norway and Sweden. It is currently on release in the UK and opens this Friday in Denmark. SLEUTH opens in December in Turkey, Germany and Hungary and in January in Finland and the Netherlands. It opens in Australia on February 7th 2008.

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