Cat and Mouse

Kenneth Branagh's remake of 'Sleuth' is visually engaging, but its narrative ambiguity can be a little tiresome

Cat and mouse games can be fun — when you know who’s the cat and who’s the mouse. When you don’t, it’s like watching two kids on a teeter-totter going back and forth. Up and down. Over and over again.

For those who don’t remember, Sleuth was originally released in 1972 starring Michael Caine. The 2007 remake also stars Caine. However, 35 years later, the actor is wearing different shoes — once playing the young lover, he’s now playing the cuckolded husband, originally portrayed by Sir Laurence Olivier. Opposite Caine is Jude Law, the brainchild behind the new version. With two actors doing the lion’s share of the work, the film relies on their gifts and director Kenneth Branagh to pull it off. Of the three, it’s Law who is the weakest link.

Andrew Wyke (Caine) is a successful mystery writer, living in the lap of luxury on his well-guarded and heavily monitored English estate. With every whim available at the flick of his little remote, he has everything but his wife at his fingertips. She’s currently residing at the fingertips of Milo Tindle (Law), an actor/hairdresser, who visits Wyke in hopes of securing a divorce for his lover.

Stop or I'll shoot: Caine and Law

Stop or I’ll shoot: Caine and Law

What begins as civilized, if somewhat forced, conversation between two men dissolves into a game of war, with ideas and thoughts as decoys, and guns and knives as the real weapons. Wyke, well-accustomed to his wife’s spendthrift ways, convinces Tindle to ”break” into his home and steal some jewelry to help support her lifestyle. Between the money made from its sale on the black market and the insurance check, everyone will be a winner.

This set-up then leads to a seemingly endless match of metaphorical arm wrestling as each man gains the upper hand and then loses some ground. Pretty soon you want to stop the teeter-totter and get off, because the nausea is setting in.

Visually, Branagh has created a stunning film. He uses the high-tech aspects of Wyke’s homes to a great degree, at some points more successful than others. The men play with the lighting, the fireplace, the projection of reflections on the wall to overtly emphasize their points. For all the subtly in the film, when they want to make their points, they make them loud and clear. Other times it’s the simple shots of the men — Caine looking broken, Law posing seductively with his arms over his head — that are more captivating for their simplicity.

As the film is loosely broken into different acts, and Branagh changes his style to match each part. For the first portion, Branagh uses the home’s many security cameras to capture the action, casting a monitor’s eerie green glow across the screen. Later he drops this technique and employs extreme close-ups. It’s this vision that makes Sleuth a delight to watch, even when the action drags.

SLEUTH
starstarstar
Starring Michael Caine, Jude Law, Alec Cawthorne
Rated R
86 Minutes
Opens Oct. 26
Area Theaters

Harold Pinter, who adapts this latest version from Anthony Shaffer’s stage play, infuses an exciting level of creep factor into the script. Wyke and Tindle are baffling characters — it’s hard to know if they’re trying to fool just each other, or themselves. Even when the plot is falling out beneath them, watching Caine and Law jump from one personality to the next is a fascinating study of technique. One moment Law is seductively crawling across the leather covered bed, crooning that he likes older, rich men; the next he’s screaming in rage. While Caine often resorts to showing his anger through a jutting jaw and clenched teeth, watching the masterful veteran actor transform in the blink of an eye is astonishing.

Ultimately, Sleuth is all about the twists and turns — what’s real and what’s just a game. When the final destination is reached, after a long a windy journey, it’s hard to know if it’s really over. The ambiguity robs the final climatic moment and leaves us a little lost. Yes, the game is over, there is a winner, but you have to wonder if the mouse ever had a chance to begin with. Probably not.

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