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Worth A Look66.67%
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Total Crap: 4.17%

3 reviews, 6 user ratings

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Sleuth (2007)
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by Erik Childress

"Even The Back Row Won't Help With The Unmasking"
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: In the same manner that you’re either a Beatles or a Rolling Stones person, then same one-or-the-other argument could also apply to the film versions of Sleuth or Deathtrap. Both began as stage productions in 1970 and 1978, respectively, and made the leap to cinema in 1972 and 1982. Each contain a labyrinthine two-act plot involving home invitations, infidelity, “games”, murder and Michael Caine. Deathtrap was the first to come across the cable wires in my home and I watched it non-stop. Sleuth came much later, which I also enjoyed, even if I was underwhelmed by what I felt was an obvious second-act twist. Arriving years later, the somewhat cribbed Deathtrap added layers of twists that weren’t as easy to spot and twice as fun. The signature pleasure of Sleuth was in watching two seasoned pros, acting up a storm and going at each other for two-plus hours. And that is much the same pleasure in Kenneth Branagh’s remake. It’s hard to fault a 35th anniversary retelling for not being able to fool us, but you would think in that time they’d be able to find a way to make that second-act twist work on film.

Switching roles from the visiting team to that of the home, Caine takes on the role of Andrew Wyke, the successful mystery novelist about to turn fiction into reality. He has invited Milo Tindle (Jude Law) into his surveillance-heavy, near sci-fi domain to discuss the impending swap of his wife over to the younger gent. Wyke teases Milo with contempt for his theatrical ambitions and the junior comes back by reminding him of his age. Where Wyke’s spouse divides in age, she apparently doubles in upkeep. Wyke suggests he’s happy to be rid of her but doubts the wannabe thespian will have the cashflow to keep her in style, thus fearing a pricey divorce settlement. Therefore he makes his own proposal to Milo, a faux robbery that allows the new suitor to make away with some expensive diamonds to supplement his income and Wyke can collect the insurance.

Even without spoiling what’s to come, any mystery fan unfamiliar with the Shaffer original knows that things are never as easy as they seem. But its even easier when only working with two characters; three if you count the inspector who shows up to shed light on the scheme. Branagh and Pinter mix things up a little by complicating the climactic events of the first act; information revealed to us in flashback that actually makes things more confusing and less surprising for the twists to come.

With top flight actors like Olivier, Caine and Law dancing around the labyrinthine plot details, it’s still Alec Cawthorne who made the greatest impression on the material. His introduction in the 1972 film was a clever way around the obvious limitations of such an unquestionably stagy production even if anyone with an eye for acting was keenly aware of the familiar undertones of his performance as said inspector. Branagh is clearly directing the hell out of Sleuth, tightening it up by about 50 minutes and making his camera angles as much of a player as the participants of Wyke’s game. It’s maybe one close-up too many though that ultimately undoes the secrets it so desperately wants to keep masked.

Branagh did it far more successfully with his masterful noirish Dead Again. He could have used a screenwriter like Scott Frank instead of the Pinteresque touches that throw an extra homoerotic wrinkle in the final scenes which we can never buy into after all we’ve seen and are dispirited that its characters are so easily wrapped up in it. At least Deathtrap just came out and planted a big wet one on us. As natural as it may be from a Freudian standpoint, it sucks whatever fun is meant to be had with what was always just a twisty little chapter play that even Olivier called a “piece of piss.” Henry V it certainly isn’t and for most of the way Caine and Law know it and just have fun taking the piss out of each other. Deathtrap it certainly ain’t either, but if you’d rather not get into the banter over which is better, maybe you can just rent The Last of Sheila.

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originally posted: 10/12/07 14:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/20/16 Anne Worth a look 4 stars
10/04/09 mr.mike Doesn't measure up to the original. 3 stars
3/26/09 mariah the concept was cool 4 stars
1/08/09 Tatiana this film was very fascinating. 4 stars
10/22/08 Shaun Wallner Great story! 4 stars
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  12-Oct-2007 (R)
  DVD: 11-Mar-2008



Directed by
  Kenneth Branagh

Written by
  Harold Pinter

  Michael Caine
  Jude Law

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