- Rated R
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All photos © Sony PIcture Classics
Reviewed by David Medsker
leuth” marks the first time that I’ve thought of someone’s directorial technique as invasive. Kenneth Branagh goes so far out of his way to draw attention to himself – all the more egregious when you consider the source material is a play, and therefore meant to be played with subtlety – that even when the movie works, it’s annoying at the same time. Branagh’s energy would certainly have been better spent reeling in Jude Law; after all, when your movie consists of one set piece and two actors, it only takes one person to ruin it for everybody. “Sleuth” is undone by two people. Out of three.
The movie begins with struggling actor Milo Tindle (Law) paying a visit to successful mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Michael Caine). Milo is having an affair with Andrew’s wife, and when Milo pleads for Andrew to end his marriage amicably so everyone can move on, Andrew gets even by playing intricate mind games with his wife’s new boy toy. Andrew’s first plan is to seduce Milo into robbing him, convincing Milo that he will not be able to provide the luxurious lifestyle to which his new girlfriend is accustomed. This sets off a series of cons and double-crosses that is constantly on the verge of turning deadly.
The first act of “Sleuth” is actually brilliant. Caine and Law gleefully spar with playwright Anthony Shaffer’s words, poking at each other’s insecurities (Andrew constantly refers to Milo as a hairdresser) while attempting to establish dominance as the alpha male. It is at the beginning of Act II, where Andrew is grilled by an inspector from Scotland Yard, that the movie begins to lose its way. The movie’s intent is painfully transparent, and all suspense is lost. By the third act, the movie has gone off the rails; Milo goes from calculating to unhinged in the blink of an eye, and even Andrew loses sight of a crucial detail that could prove to be his undoing. In the middle of all this is Branagh, staging scenes with such look-at-my-direction showiness – none showier than the endless-reflection TV – that you can almost see him pouting behind the camera because he’s not in front of the camera as well.
God love Michael Caine, then, for stepping up and giving the movie some much-needed emotional depth amidst the chaos. He is a rock throughout, even when all hell has broken loose and he was surely cursing his agent for getting him into this mess in the first place. Law has his moments here and there, but aside from his work in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” he has yet to prove why he was deemed worthy to reprise two roles made famous by Caine (“Alfie” and the original “Sleuth” from 1972). Yes, he has fabulous cheekbones, but so does Gavin Rossdale.
Watching “Sleuth” reminded me of the religious poem “Footprints in the Sand,” about how the Lord is with you even when you’re not aware of it. During the first part of the movie, there are two sets of footprints. When the movie falls apart, there is only one set. That, my child, is when Caine carried Law and Branagh.