It looks pretty hokey now, but the 1973 film of Anthony Shaffer’s hit play at least had some purpose: as an homage to the old-school English whodunnit which also suggested cultural values had clearly moved on, and as a chance to see Larry Olivier versus Michael Caine exemplifying class and generation tensions. Totally time-locked fare, in other words, so why remake it? Because Harold Pinter agreed to adapt the play? Because Caine agreed to take on the part of the ruthless older writer? Or simply because they could? Questions one asks because the finished product is such a head-scratcher. The blue-lit set looks like an ad for 1980s chrome-and-leather furnishings, Caine’s now a successful novelist, and unemployed actor Law is the visitor who announces he’s seeing to the former’s spouse so they need to talk.
And talk they do. Soon the air’s heavy with pauses and colloquialism rendered sinister by sheer dint of will from screenwriter and performers. In one-minute bursts, it crackles – Law slinking louchely around Caine’s imposing stillness – but very, very soon you notice this rutting-stag display and the dialogue’s none-too-subtle ‘I’ll be buggered’ undertones have little meaningful relationship to the original material. In the circumstances, Law agreeing to play out a jewel theft makes little sense, retaining Shaffer’s second-act ‘Scooby Doo’ coup-de-théâtre proves an act of sheer folly, and Pinter’s reconceived final half-hour might as well be a separate playlet. Kenneth Branagh’s direction, meanwhile, its self-consciously skewed angles and surveillance-cam cutaways highlighting his weakness for the misplaced flourish, is more of a hindrance than a help. What were they thinking?