by Roderick Conway Morris

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Sony Pictures Classics
Jude Law, who matches wits with Michael Caine in the updated version of 'Sleuth.'

'Sleuth' and 'Michael Clayton': Separating the men from the boys in Venice

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 31 August 2007


Sleuth Directed by Kenneth Branagh (U.K./U.S.)

Michael Clayton Directed by Tony Gilroy (U.S.)

The distinguished team responsible for the new 'Sleuth' is justified in emphasizing that this is no ordinary remake. Harold Pinter has completely rewritten Anthony Shaffer's original play (rather than his 1972 screenplay), keeping the outlines of this ingenious drama, but gutting it as comprehensively as the new location - still an English country house on the outside, but its interior transformed into a hypermodern space of glass, stone and steel, equipped with all the latest electronic gadgets and surveillance devices (this setting is the result of one of the few minimalist directions in Pinter's screenplay).

Michael Caine plays Andrew Wyke, the wealthy writer who inhabits this high-tech rustic retreat but, whereas in the original he was the author of old-fashioned country-house murder mysteries, he is now a self-made millionaire producer of blockbuster crime thrillers. Jude Law is in the role of Milo Tindle, the struggling young actor (a more timeless figure, perhaps), who has shacked up with Wyke's wife and comes to ask him to do the decent thing - and give her a divorce. Jude Law is not only the other main protagonist (played by Caine in the first version of the film, opposite Lawrence Olivier), but the co-producer, who over several years put this project together and recruited Kenneth Branagh as the ideal man to direct it.

The reworking of the play is not just an adept transformation of theater to film (to which cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos has made a major contribution), but also casts a revealing light on social history, reflecting the enormous changes in English society, language and morals in the nearly 40 years since the play first appeared on the London stage.

The first celluloid 'Sleuth' was filmed over 16 weeks, but this version took 4, and the increase in pace is palpable. At the same time, Pinter has punctuated the action with his famous pregnant pauses, often to great comic effect.

Shaffer's Wyke was an eccentric upper-class player of elaborate games. Pinter's and Caine's Wyke is a much more volatile, dangerous customer, his Cockney charm, laced with a kind of habitual sarcasm exploding into violence at a moment's notice. Jude Law's Tindle, too, reveals under pressure hidden reserves of rage and murderous intent. Having locked antlers, Wyke and Tindle become so absorbed in their struggle they seem entirely to forget the object of their contention, Wyke's wife. The original, more restrained, battle of wills and wits between Wyke and his rival has now become a much more edgy, psychological and physical contest. Even those who can remember the original play and film will find this new interpretation a gripping experience.

A wider, more crowded macho jungle is the context of Tony Gilroy's 'Michael Clayton.' George Clooney plays Clayton, a backroom fixer for a leading New York legal firm who deals with the potentially disastrous problems of their most highly valued corporate clients, from hit-and-run driving accidents to executive wives who shoplift.

One of the firm's biggest clients is a multinational that has been marketing a weedkiller found to be poisonous to the farmers using it. On the brink of success in defending a class action against them, the firm's chief litigating lawyer Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has a nervous breakdown and goes AWOL, threatening to supply a vital document to the litigants to expiate the guilt that has now overwhelmed him for using his encyclopedic legal expertise to fight in a dirty cause.

Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), senior partner, details Clayton to track down and contain Arthur, and Clayton finds himself up against the sole significant female player in the drama, the multinational's top in-house lawyer Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), who is prepared to do anything, but anything, to prevent damaging information against her employers from getting out and wrecking their hugely expensive and thoroughly mendacious defense.

Gilroy is an experienced screenwriter - his credits include the blockbuster 'Bourne' movies - but this is the first film he has both written and directed. 'Michael Clayton' is in some ways reminiscent of Sydney Pollack's own 'Three Days of the Condor,' the role of the mysterious unaccountable intelligence agency being taken by the sinister multinational, but lacks the sustained level of suspense of such classics of the genre. In the end, the film falls slightly between two stools, unable to decide whether to concentrate on the theme of corporate greed and legal skullduggery or to use these as a background for a more straightforward thriller.

Clooney puts in a fine performance as a man coming to terms with his own personal failures and a career that seems to be going nowhere, suddenly faced with a real moral dilemma, and ends up being the most outstanding element in this enjoyable but not altogether successful production.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023