I sometimes like to assess the potential of up-coming films by their pedigree. Who’s in it, who directed it, who wrote it, what did they do before.
It’s probably a bit like a betting man assessing his horses before they run in the race.
On that basis, the 2007 version of Anthony Shaffer’s stage play ‘Sleuth’ was a thrilling proposition indeed.
I first saw the original film, with Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, and Alec Cawthorne one Christmas Night on telly many years ago and it quite literally knocked me out of my seat.
Now comes the new version with Caine coming back in the Olivier part, Jude Law taking the Caine part, Kenneth Branagh directing and (just bloody wait for this) a new adaptation of the original play by none other than the great Harold Pinter himself.
I mean, is that a pedigree or is that a pedigree?
So it’s out on DVD. I just got to see it last night – I don’t get to the cinema much anymore. Here’s what I thought. Before I get into that, let me reassure you that I will work hard to allow ‘Sleuth’ to keep its little secrets in case you haven’t ever seen it.
The first problem is that so many people know this story from its previous incarnations. Let’s face it, if you know the story, then certain aspects of the twisty-turny plot will not be able to surprise you a second time around. It becomes more interesting to study the technicalities of how the story unfolds rather than to become involved in the story all over again.
That’s what I found anyway.
But Branagh and Pinter know this. They knew the clever plot won’t carry this show a second time around. They knew they had to do something more with it.
And they did.
What did they do? Well they made a ‘Harold Pinter’ play out of it, that’s what they did. What previously was a fairly over-the-top romp through the world of whodunnits and theatrical excesses has now become a surgical, ice-cold study in man’s inhumanity to man.
Branagh, as director, works hard to ‘direct as Pinter writes’. There are loads of obtuse camera-angles, distorted reflections, games played with time and space. And… … …pauses. Several elongated pauses, one of them so long that it felt like the protagonist was about to announce the winner of ‘X-Factor.’
As a side-note, Pinter does not seem as attached to his pauses as the people who direct his works are. When Harold played the lead in his own play ‘One For the Road’ he left out most of the pauses which allegedly trademark his work.
So ‘Sleuth’ is back, reinvented.
But is it any good?
I think the film never quite resolves what it wants to be. Is it an art-house oddity or is it a mainstream big budget thriller? In trying to be both, it fails to be either.
There is much to admire, the acting is very good, Pinter’s writing is ‘Pinteresque’ and the design is cold and blue and striking.
I love Pinter. I enjoyed this quite a bit.
However, I don’t think everyone will.