When news of a planned new Sleuth hit Hollywood a year or so ago, it sounded promising: Kenneth Branagh directing a Harold Pinter-revamped version of the Anthony Shaffer play, a play made into a satisfying film back in the early 1970s starring Michael Caine and Sir Laurence Olivier.
In this new version, Caine would return to play the Olivier part - a nasty-tempered mystery scribe exacting revenge on the young bloke who has stolen away his wife. And Jude Law would play that part, a ne'er-do-well lover-boy.
Alas and alack, the two-hander re-do is upon us, and it's dreadful. All style and empty, over-the-top emoting, Branagh's Sleuth takes place in an English country manse owned by Caine's Andrew Wyke, a millionaire thriller novelist whose idea of interior design involves plenty of glass, chrome and video-surveillance cameras. The place is cold and cobalt blue - like the set of a cheesy sci-fi spaceship, minus the intergalactic crew.
When Milo Tindle (the copper-toned Law) first pulls up to Wyke's front door, the action, or what passes for it (parking, walking, knocking), is shot from overhead, the point of view of a security camera, or an omniscient pigeon.
Later, the camera starts swiveling and stalking, as the two actors - neither of whom manage to bring an ounce of realism to their roles - exchange volleys of hollow double entendres, doublespeak and menace-laced repartee. Pinter, deploying a gay subtext that is hardly sub, writes dialogue that ping-pongs back and forth, rife with repetition and rhetorical questions. Caine and Law spew spittle and venom as they go through the various stages of this stagey affair.
There are a couple of surprise "twists" in Sleuth, but I'd wager that even if you haven't seen, or read, the play, or the original Joseph L. Mankiewicz-directed screen adaptation, you could spot these gimmicky turns coming from down the end of Andrew Wyke's driveway. Or maybe from all the way over to the next shire.
Art-directed within an inch of its life, Sleuth has the smirky gloss of a project that everyone involved with thinks is terribly good, and terribly clever.
These people - Branagh, Pinter, Law and the usually great Caine (even in bad stuff) - are laboring under an epic misconception. Sleuth is just terrible.
Sleuth *1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh. With Michael Caine and Jude Law. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 1 hour, 26 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, violence, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz East and Showcase At Ritz Center/NJ
Contact movie critic Steven Rea