Postmodern, sadomasochist, Darth Vader furniture and artwork adorn the house and main setting of Kenneth Branagh
's update of Sleuth like the aftermath of a smart bomb. Yet, author Andrew Wyke (Michael Caine
) walks around it as if all its missing is the crocheted picture of "Home Sweet Home" over the fireplace. His wife's wardrobe and his self-immortalizing library of books are revealed like secret passages that hide mangled corpses and the man seems to drink expensive, straight vodka exclusively. By all means, Wyke could buy and sell a good portion of the English back country that he inhabits; the man takes an elevator to his bedroom for Chrissakes.
When an honest-to-goodness scallywag named Milo Tindle (Jude Law
), an Italian hairdresser with designs on acting, comes to Wyke's estate announcing his plans to marry Wyke's estranged wife, the author seems pleased to have an opponent than enraged by the open deceit. And that in a nutshell is how this cat-and-mouse whirligig operates: two men more excited about the idea of a nemesis than their money or their beautiful mistress respectively. Article continues below
Adapted from Anthony Shaffer's play by prickly dramatist Harold Pinter, Branagh mines the dialogue and the setup for every theatrical and homosexual intimation that could possibly be revealed in its subtext. It's the blatant homoerotic scenes near the tail-end that sends this deviously cold concept off the rails into lunacy. It's never made clear if these scenes of ludicrous flamboyancy are just another set of thrust-and-parries between the characters or if their intentions are true, and this artifice fuels the film's lively intensity. The movie ultimately veers from deeply involved to condescendingly absurd.
When Joseph L. Mankiewicz originally made the film with Caine as the wild provocateur and Laurence Olivier as the vindictive author, the game's pulse was in the warlike tactics of both parties. Branagh tries to fracture not only the psychology of his opponents but the very ground they walk on through his Burton-without-the-humor set design. His scenery instantaneously becomes just as interesting, if not more interesting, than the spoken lacerations both men dole out. The actors, both consummate but Caine immortally so, try to stir life into Haris Zambarloukos' camerawork, but the look comes off as unsure; you'd never believe this was the same man who accentuated space and color so vividly in Enduring Love.
The theatricality of the production effectively diffuses much of its tension. It's preposterous to believe the film's central twist involving Wyke being investigated by a lousy cop with a thick accent. The thought of trying such a scene on camera is ambitious if not fatally amateurish but also points to a glaring fact: Mankiewicz is simply a (much) better director than Branagh is.