Based on the Anthony Shaffer play of the same name - of which a film version was previously made in 1972 – 'Sleuth' is about the darkly intriguing relationship of two men who try to outdo each other via an angular series of tit-for-tat conversations and ever more intense stunts and confidence tricks.
Andrew Wyke (Caine), a successful writer of blockbuster crime fiction, is the older of the pair. He lives alone in a large country house riddled with hi-tech gadgets, CCTV and visual allegories, and has lost his wife to a younger man: Milo Tindle (Law). Tindle is the other player in the mano-a-mano standoff; a struggling actor - in contrast to the wealthy author Wyke - he is young and good-looking, but, at least initially, somewhat naïve. Wyke's wife, by the way, exists almost entirely off screen and in the dialogue; just one of the ways in which this remains very much a play.
That is not surprising, I suppose, as the screenplay for this 'Sleuth' was written by the playwright Harold Pinter. Strangely, Pinter claims not to have seen either the original play or the 1970s version of the film, or even to have read the script. It is, in any case, unmistakably a Pinter work rather than a 'remake', or adaptation in the usual sense. More symmetrical and heavy than the average film drama, it has plenty to offer the viewer who might usually enjoy a night at the theatre.
The twisty and surprising plot is the main surviving element from the original, and even it has been stripped to the bare essentials. Set almost entirely in Wyke's house, it is unrelenting and claustrophobic in its portrayal of the two men's ever more desperate attempts to gain a conversational or literal upper hand in which youth versus old age, wealth versus poverty, writer versus actor, man with gun versus man without gun all have their moment on screen, all the while driven by an underlying throb of jealousy, pride, desire, insecurity and instinct for self-preservation.
Visually, director Kenneth Branagh has attempted to match the script by using surprising angles and half revealing shots and constantly gloomy and severe lighting. He could not be accused of lacking bravery, and by and large his efforts to make the viewer sit up and take notice work. But the main star is without doubt the conversations. Real but at the same time surreal, the speech is attention grabbing and substantial but not hyperactive; seeming to speak directly and clearly but without any individual lines that are in and of themselves obviously important or noteworthy. Somehow, the conversations take on fascinating shapes and forms in what is perhaps the most rewarding and, for want of a better word, 'enjoyable' aspect of the film.
Michael Caine - who played Milo Tindle in the earlier film - and Jude Law both put in strong and charismatic performances in the lead roles, making a pair of slightly narcissistic and unpleasant characters seem almost likeable and skilfully conveying the swings and developments in the relationship.
The new script and superb performances are perhaps what fans of the original film might enjoy most, and those not familiar with it are in for a real treat. Highly recommended.