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Arts & Culture

Sleuth

A remake of a film based on a play that works primarily on a twist means that many people coming to this are likely to know some of the secrets. That means that you really have to deliver the goods and make the playing of the game more satisfying that knowing the outcome. I have to give this new

Sleuth credit for taking on the challenge with some bravado. First of all, getting renowned playwright Harold Pinter to pen the rewrite showed that they were serious about trying to come up with something clever.

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Sleuth (Sony Pictures Classics)

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Second, director Kenneth Branagh radically reimagines how the setting should look. He trades in the fun, playful set of the first film for something cold and hi-tech. In the 1972 film, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Wyke's mansion was like a funhouse filled with props, games and toys. It was cluttered and seemed to have a life of its own as animated objects could move and laugh without warning. In Branagh's film, Wyke's austere luxury fortress is all cold, clean, modern lines -- steel and concrete. It also has every nook and cranny monitored by surveillance cameras. Branagh plays with the bevy of sleek monitors and often lets scenes play out on one or more of these screens. Visually, Wyke's state of the art home security system and pretentiously designed mansion prove fun elements to work with.

But as a whole, Branagh's Sleuth delivers a preening surface that's glossy and coldly attractive, but we don't care a whit about the characters or what happens to them. The play had the two leads engage in a game of one-ups-manship and the constant strutting and showing off provided an escalating sense of fun. Branagh has trimmed the running time of the first film almost in half and deserves credit for the attempted streamlining. But his shorter version doesn't feel all that much shorter because it has a painfully drawn out conclusion that is considerably different from the original play.

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Sleuth (Sony Pictures Classics)

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Pinter, who can write scathing, brilliant dialogue, offers some tasty exchanges early on but never really ramps up hate between the two men to a level of truly delicious nastiness. There's a newly added gay aspect to the drama as well, but it plays out with a sensibility that seems to come from '70s Hollywood. So there's a stereotyped perspective that presents homosexuality as something closeted and predatory. There's a dated quality to how the male sexuality is dealt with, and it also feels like something was added at the last minute rather than something thought through as a well developed element of the plot and characters.

Caine and Law enjoy themselves in their roles, but the casting doesn't play on class as well as it did with Olivier and Caine. In the first film, Olivier came across as one of the landed gentry, someone from the British upper class who felt that wealth and privilege were his birthright. That also extended to a sense of being above the law. And Caine as the Tindle character was the upstart Cockney, daring to try and sleep his way into that elite world. But Caine as Wyke doesn't convey British aristocracy. His Wyke is someone who's where he is because he managed to make a lot of money. And Law's Tindle looks too refined to have much trouble breaking into the upper class. So in the new film there isn't a convincing class antagonism to help fan the flames of their rivalry. These are smart, competent actors who know how to play their scenes, but they just don't have enough to work with and they also have to fight what is not really good casting.

Sleuth (rated R for strong language) doesn't improve on the original nor does it create something new with enough appeal to really satisfy an audience. All it has to offer is the occasional fun of two actors squaring off and exchanging venomous dialogue.

Companion viewing: Sleuth (1972), Closer, The Servant, Alfie (1966, Jude Law starred in the remake) -----

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