Nobodyâ’s going to want credit for this inept Sleuth
by Kieron Barry
It must have looked great on paper: A remake of the much-loved twist-within-a-twist English whodunit Sleuth, with Michael Caine bumped up to Laurence Olivierâ’s role and Caineâ’s old clogs filled by young pretender Jude Law. And who better to direct than Kenneth Branagh, himself something of a successor to Olivier as the most audacious British actor-manager of his generation. The script needs a rewrite? No problem, just commission Harold Pinter, the worldâ’s greatest living playwright.
How, then, did this end up as one of the worst films of the last 10 years?
Much of the blame, Iâ’m afraid, lies with Pinter. Perhaps a little vaingloriously, the Nobel laureate has thrown out every single line of Anthony Shafferâ’s 1972 screenplay in his efforts to reverse-engineer a narrative machine of efficiency and power. Admittedly, the dialogue is improved tenfold through the injection of Pinterâ’s brand of elegant brutality. â“Your wife says youâ’re no good in bed,â” says Milo Tindle (Law) to Caineâ’s Anthony Wyke. â“But Iâ’m wonderful in bed,â” demurs the cuckolded Wyke. â“Oh,â” comes the reply, â“I must tell her.â” Or the delightfully ambiguous, â“Is this a game?â” â“This is a real game.â”
Games, of course, are the stock-in-trade of Sleuth. Everythingâ’s a game, until it all goes too far, and thatâ’s when the sport really begins. Tindle, the youthful lover of Wykeâ’s estranged trophy wife, is summoned to Wykeâ’s country pile and offered a dealâ"Tindle may keep Wykeâ’s wife if he stages a break-in and steals the family jewels, allowing Wyke to claim the insurance. But Wyke, of course, is setting a trapâ"and, unbeknownst to him, so is Tindle. Cue wheels within wheels.
The biggest problem with Pinterâ’s rewrite is that it simply doesnâ’t make any sense. The plot, tottering at the best of times, collapses by the third act into vapid nonsense. Here it eschews any suspense, lamely attempting instead to pluck a few sexual chords. They fail to resonate.
Branaghâ’s consistently misjudged direction is only partly his fault. The script ties one hand behind his back and the setâ"a literally laughable modernist follyâ"ties the other. In lieu of any better ideas, Branagh relentlessly apologizes for the static nature of the piece, forcing us to watch the action from ever sillier angles. In the past, Branagh has shown himself capable of transferring nimbly to the medium of film; the opening of his Much Ado About Nothing is as exuberant and thrilling as anything in â’90s cinema. Here, however, such energy has decayed into a frustrating twitchiness which renders the film all but unwatchable.
With no supporting roles, the original film was able to achieve the feat of having its entire cast nominated for Academy Awards. No chance of that here, Iâ’m afraid. Michael Caine may be no Olivier, but heâ’s more of an Olivier than Jude Law is a Michael Caine. This is Lawâ’s second attempt to follow in the footsteps of the beknighted East-Ender, and after 2004â’s disastrous Alfie he should have gotten the message. Most of the highlights of Sleuth are to be found in Jude Lawâ’s hairâ"its final appearance, I suspect, before the increasingly unavoidable total-shave-or-subtle-rug decision. Somewhat cruel to judge Law on his appearance, perhaps, but what else is he selling? Every film since The Talented Mr. Ripley has been another falling away from that exhilarating early promise. Here he trudges through the usual series of smirks and snorts, extending his range only to mug embarrassingly in what he presumably hoped would pass for panic in the rare moments that the script calls for drama.
Itâ’s only Michael Caine who staggers from the wreckage of Sleuth with any dignity still intact. Perhaps because of his Cockney accent, Caine has never entirely received the admiration he deserves from the class-obsessed British. But after a fairly dry â’90s he is now, happily, receiving some worthy roles, which makes his appearance in this slightly less tragic. With his rumpled face and mischievous sobriety, Caine is never less than compelling. Indeed, the less he does the more he radiates star quality, and in no two-shot does it ever occur to one to watch Law.
He deserves better fare than this, though. The biggest mystery in this limp whodunit is how did it all go so wrong.
Movie Guru Rating:
You donâ’t have to be French to love Edith Piaf, but you may have to be French to love her as much as the French do, and you may even have to be French to fully appreciate writer/director Olivier Dahanâ’s biopic of the quintessential Parisian singer. That said, Marion Cotillardâ’s performance as Piaf in La Vie En Rose is likely to dazzle almost any moviegoer.
Piafâ’s life was the stuff of unbelievable melodrama. Born in slummy Belleville, Edith passes the hat in the street for her singer mother before being sent to live in a brothel, where she goes temporarily blind, finally rejoining her circus-performer father back in the streets. One day he discovers she can sing, a talent built into a budding career by club owner Leplee (GÃ©rard Depardieu), who dubs her â“the Sparrowâ” and becomes the first of her many ill-fated intimates. Dahan cuts back and forth from her grim childhood to her grim final years, where tragedy, illness, and drug abuse had wizened Piaf into a candy-floss-haired crone who could pass for 30 years older (she was a mere 47 when she died in 1963). In between she goes through ups and downs, losing badly in love but never losing her indomitable voice, or her drive to use it.
Cotillard handles Piaf from teenager up to her deathbed, picking up this somewhat florid film onto her narrow shoulders and carrying it all the way. She is as convincing playing Piaf as a young street bawd in training, drunken and raspy, as she is as Piaf in her prime, romancing married boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), or when she is aged and hunched but clinging to the idea of one last comeback. Throughout, Cotillardâ’s big eyes telegraph the fragility and vulnerability that made up so much of Piafâ’s appeal, and the rest of her supremely physical performance seamlessly evokes a woman who lived enough life for a dozen. â" Lee Gardner
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