Program Length: 89 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen
Languages: English Dolby 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
In 1977, New York Times film critic Vincent Canby wrote a column entitled “What Are We to Make of Remakes?” Canby noted that “the majority of remakes of classic films have been disasters, financially and artistically…does anyone remember the name of the man who directed the idiotic remake of John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach?” That same year another writer for the Times, Robert Edison, wrote a piece called “Is Hollywood Making the Wrong Remakes?” Edison argued that instead of remaking classics, Hollywood should consider remaking films which were inherently flawed the first time around, particularly those which had been butchered by censors.
In recent years we have seen that little has changed in the past three decades, as Hollywood continues to look to the past for inspiration. Perhaps no remake has caused more head-scratching among film buffs than Gus Van Sant’s 1998 version of Psycho, a scene-for-scene copy of the original. If the director has nothing new to bring to a project, why bother?
Now we have Sleuth, Kenneth Branagh’s updating of the 1972 classic of the same name which was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Based upon a play by Anthony Shaffer, the original film version of Sleuth was a sensation when it was released. Critics and audiences loved it. Mankiewicz and both of his lead actors, Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, were nominated for Academy Awards and Golden Globe Awards.
So let us take a cue from Vincent Canby and ask ourselves, “What are we to make of this remake?” For one thing, if features a couple of excellent acting performances. In the original Laurence Oliver plays Andrew Wyke, a wealthy author of mystery novels whose wife has left him for a younger man, Milo Tindle, played by the 39-year-old Michael Caine. In the remake, director Branagh has cleverly cast the now 74-year-old Caine as Wyke, and the part of Tindle is played by Jude Law.
Tindle comes to see Wyke at his stately manor in the English countryside because Wyke has refused to give his wife a divorce. Under English law, Wyke is allowed to delay the divorce for up to five years. Tindle hopes to persuade Wyke to change his mind. Although Wyke’s home looks rather traditional from the outside, the interior is an ultra-modern revelation. He has a sophisticated surveillance system which allows him to view every portion of his property and every room in his house. He even has a rotating flatscreen television in his den and an elevator to take him to his bedroom. Tindle is young, handsome and charming, but also is an unemployed actor of limited means. Wyke professes a deep reluctance to divorce his wife, but after a time he makes Tindle an offer. Wyke tells Tindle that he fears that his wife will grow weary of Tindle when he cannot afford to keep her living in the style to which she has grown accustomed, and that she will eventually come crawling back to Wyke. If there is going to be a divorce, it needs to be permanent.
Wyke has hatched a plan which, he says, will solve both of their concerns. He proposes that Tindle “steal” jewelry in Wyke’s safe which is worth one million pounds. Tindle will be able to fence the jewelry and live a life of luxury, and Wyke will lose nothing because his insurance company will reimburse him for his financial loss. Wyke has even figured out a foolproof way for Tindle to make forced entry into the house and have it look like a genuine burglary.
To say any more about the plot would be to give it away. However, what follows is a clever cat-and-mouse game in which both Wyke and Tindle try mightily to gain the upper hand. So far, so good. However, after a superb first act, and an overly contrived and overplayed second act, the film loses focus and limps to a rather abrupt and somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion. The original Sleuth has a running time of 138 minutes and seems to be thirty minutes shorter; the remake runs for 89 minutes and seems to be thirty minutes longer. Caine and Law are mostly excellent, and visually there is much about the film to like. The interior of Wyke’s home is stunning and Branagh has an interesting eye for camera angles. Ultimately, however, the two characters are not very appealing and their actions appear to be driven more by screenwriter Harold Pinter’s need for plot turns than by genuine motivation.
Someone who has never seen the original Sleuth might be more forgiving. However, I recall felling exhilarated after seeing the earlier film in 1972. This time I felt that I had just seen a film with excellent acting and wonderful production values, but with more style than substance.
This anamorphic widescreen transfer is excellent. The picture is sharp and film-like. The colors and flesh tones are rendered accurately. Toward the end of the film the interior of Wyke’s home virtually glows red, but the DVD handles it without any bleeding. There is some darkness in many of the interior scenes, but black levels are excellent and shadow detail is fine. The transfer is free of digital artifacts, edge enhancement, etc.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is very good. This is a dialogue-drive film, so you will not be using this as a reference disc for your sound system, but every word is delivered clearly and crisply. There are some dramatic moments where the audio delivers some real punch, however. The surround channels are used effectively, with dialogue and ambient sounds appropriately coming from different directions. Violins are prominently featured in the musical score, which sounds very nice.
The supplemental materials on Sleuth are okay, but not exceptional. They are identical to the extras which appear on the Blu-ray release.
There are two commentary tracks, one with Kenneth Branagh and Michael Caine, the other with Jude Law. The films contains a plot twist which took viewers totally by surprise in the 1972 film but which seems to me to be telegraphed in this remake. Nevertheless, the director and actors are convinced that it works perfectly here. You can be your own judge of that.
There also is a behind-the-scenes featurette entitled “A Game of Cat and Mouse: Behind the Scenes of Sleuth” which is mildly entertaining. Also included is a short featurette which goes into some detail about the makeup and prosthetics used in the film.
The single disc comes in a standard keepcase.
The Final Analysis
Sleuth has some things going for it. The role reversal for Michael Caine is certainly an interesting idea and fans of the original will likely enjoy seeing him play the older man in this release. Jude Law is very good as well, so fans of good acting will see plenty of it. However, in the end this version of Sleuth seemed to me to be more about the acting and less about characters that I could care about. Ultimately, a cat-and-mouse game is interesting only if you have a rooting interest about whether the cat or the mouse wins.
Equipment used for this review:
Toshiba HD-XA2 DVD player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: March 11, 2008