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Sleuth: Exhausted Battle of Wits

by Archives October 23, 2007

Intense wordplay helps turn a phrase into a stinging bullet of wit in this sinister yet cunning remake of the 1972 original.
Still, cunning intensity only makes Sleuth a good film, more would be needed to make it a great one.
Sleuth pits Michael Caine versus Jude law. Caine plays Andrew Wyke, a millionaire novelist with a penchant for technology. Law plays Milo Tindle, an out-of-work actor who stole Andrew’s wife. The drama is because of her, but is entirely about them. Andrew spitefully needs to outwit Milo; he is morbidly jealous of him and needs to reassure his dominance.
Milo needs Andrew to agree to a divorce and to marry Andrew’s wife -presumably for her hefty settlement that comes along. Andrew warns Milo that his wife spends voraciously and that he could not handle it. Milo seems to agree.
The film begins with a front door encounter at Andrew’s country estate. Formalities are delivered with malicious undertones. Coyly, Andrew undermines Milo’s every comment, spurring him to a duel of intellects. Milo answers Andrew’s call when Caines’ iconic voice states, “So I understand you’re fucking my wife,” and he affirms this with a wry smile. The incisors now start to expose themselves and the rules to this sparring match are set.
The entire film takes place in the country estate, a 19th century mansion gutted and re-designed with a feng-shui-meets-dungeon-of-terrors-type look. An intoxicating effect is produced by the home’s odd angles and stark colors. Staircases and hallways seemingly lead nowhere.
The house itself is a trap – this is Andrew’s world – and in it he has Milo jumping through hoops. It’s wired with the latest in ambient lighting, moving fish tanks and retractable ladders, all controlled by a thumb controlled remote which Andrew cleverly manipulates.
The film has a couple of interesting twists and turns, and the second act is superbly performed. The script, based on a play by Anthony Shaffer, is stark and served cold, but this is not to say that it is without flavour. It is excellent, but while this is the film’s strength, it is most certainly its weakness.
Everything: the music, the editing, the shot composition, even the house are seemingly in place to amplify the intensity of this verbal jousting match.
All the while I watched this, I felt like I was watching two sport teams who I knew nothing about battle it out. What I mean to say is that I didn’t hold a pang of empathy for either character and couldn’t care less who won. I think this type of discourse is more appropriate for the stage, where the proximity one has to the action can put you in the heat of the moment.
Law does give one of his best performances here. Caine, as always, is fun to watch and listen. Law is actually playing the character that Caine played in the original – Milo. This goes with his interest in Caine’s old personas; he played the title character in Alfie, a role Caine inaugurated in 1966.
The two do seem to come from the same breed but from two completely different generations – this makes watching them that much more fun. This also takes away from a battle between Milo and Andrew and replaces it with the battle between Caine and Law. I never felt completely emerged in the film’s drama.
Could this have been a better film? Yes. How? I have no clue. It just feels like something was missing, a little heart maybe, or maybe a little more suspense – the film seems to zing through its crafty dialogue en route to the next turn of phrase.
The whole thing was filmed in five weeks, perhaps no one had the chance to stop and smell those proverbial roses. If they did, maybe the film would have felt more like the ultimate duel; instead it feels a bit dry and unrealistic – a valiant effort nonetheless. In one word, this film was interesting.

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