Too often these days ambitious directors treat the art of the past as the survivors of the barbarian invasions treated the great monuments of imperial Rome -- that is, as a quarry for materials with which to construct their own miserable little hovels. For some reason, Chris Rock decides to use an Eric Rohmer movie as the platform for a cinematic version of his stand-up routine in I Think I Love My Wife. James Mangold takes a perfectly decent moralistic Western from 1957, 3:10 to Yuma, and turns it into something resembling an episode of Deadwood. Why, I wonder, does he feel the need to put his mark on it, like a dog on a fire hydrant? Now, Kenneth Branagh has taken the 1972 two-hander Sleuth, based on a play of 1970 by Anthony Shaffer, and turned it into a Pinter play -- with the help of none other than Harold Pinter himself.
Why not just make a film of a Pinter play instead of Pinterizing Shaffer? Why this urge to gratuitous vandalism? Mr. Branagh's dreadful filmed version of As You Like It, which ran on HBO last summer, may give us a clue. His transformation of Shaffer is like his transformation of Shakespeare in shouting: Look at me! Aren't I clever? That Shakespeare -- or Shaffer -- may be a dry old stick, but just look at how I've tarted him up for you! I've made him entertaining! Those of us who are still entertained by the original are out of luck, it seems. But if you take a different view and enjoy watching Mr. Branagh mug and preen for the camera, either as actor or director, you may like this Sleuth. You'll have gathered that I didn't.
Part of the joke, or the showing-off, is having Michael Caine play the Laurence Olivier part in the original -- in which Mr. Caine played the younger man, Milo Tindal, who is sleeping with the old boy's wife. Milo and Sir Laurence's Anthony Wyke play a series of elaborate and cunningly plotted games in which the object is to humiliate each other. In the new version the games are fewer and less elaborate. Instead of the careful plotting of a cerebral cat-and-mouse game, we have the to straightforward application of physical threat with knife and gun. Milo, Mr. Caine's role of 35 years ago, is now taken by Jude Law, the young man who also took over the part Mr. Caine had played back in 1966 in Charles Shyer's feeble remake of Alfie three years ago.
It all seems faintly incestuous. Such theatrical in-jokes obviously delight Mr. Branagh, but his behind-the-scenes foolery has nothing to do with Shaffer, whose play was perhaps the most successful of the many parables of the British class system that were so popular at the time. Mr. Pinter has taken all that out, along with most of what made Shaffer's characters distinctive and anchored in some kind of reality. Now they have a generic quality. Much of the early part of the film is shown on surveillance-camera monitors. There seems no particular point to this mannerism, however, and it is soon dropped. Above all, instead of class-resentment we have long pauses, word-play, gratuitous menace and sexual bullying with little or no social context. In other words, instead of Shaffer we have Pinter.
This amounts to dramatic tautology. It tells us nothing except that anything Mr. Pinter touches instantly becomes Pinteresque. Can it be worth the price of admission to find that out? I thought we knew it before. Here's an example of Pinteresque dialogue. Andrew asks Milo, "If you're an actor, why haven't I heard of you?"
"You will." Pause. "In spades."
Pause. "That sounds threatening."
Pause. "Does it?"
Pause. "Yes." Pause. "Doesn't it?"
Of course it does. Everything in a Pinter-play sounds threatening. Threat is the currency in which Mr. Pinter trades. That and a bizarro sort of wit not to "get" which, one supposes, is to get it. "You know what legal justice is? It's farting 'Annie Laurie' through a keyhole," says Andrew to Milo.
Bet you didn't know that.
The humiliation game survives, but now it has become the pretext for intimacy between the two adversaries. Sexual ambiguity and a budding gay romance have replaced the overtones of the much older "affair of honor" that still survived in the original. Andrew's playing the wronged husband, seeking revenge on his wife's lover, could still be taken for granted by Shaffer and his audience. Now, like everything else, it's just part of the joke. Instead of the police it is now supposedly the unfaithful wife who comes to the door at the end. But since we don't see her any more than, 35 years ago, we saw them, the point about their irrelevance is the same. In Pinter, violence needs no more explanation than does the urge to deface the monuments of the past. It is characteristic of postmodern culture to take both things for granted. Audiences should demand something better.