See How They Run
Life imitates art in the West End of 1950’s London when Leo Köpernick (Adrian Brody), the boorish director for a planned film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s murder-mystery play The Mousetrap, is found slain in the theatre. The detectives assigned to the case – human wreck Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and eager-to-learn rookie Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) – soon realise there are a great deal of suspects, ranging from the play’s star Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) to easily offended writer Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo) and even the people who were on the wrong side of Köpernick’s sordid personal life. Someone is a killer and, as soon becomes clear, they are willing to kill again.
The combination of Kenneth Branagh’s Murder On The Orient Express and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out appears to have prompted something of a mini-renaissance in this genre, the classic-style of whodunit murder mystery, and Tom George’s See How They Run is a worthy addition to the canon of such stories. Working as both a sort of satire and love letter to the works of Agatha Christie, with a healthy dollop of Wes Anderson in various production details, it lacks the seriousness of Poirot and the sense of sublime detail of Blanc, but is still a very enjoyable look at some stock characters getting tangled up in a mystery with a lot of clues and a lot of potential killers. It’s a film to remind you that there is a lot of fun to be mined from this kind of premise, and a great opportunity to showcase various cast members.
It’s hard to walk the line between pisstake and reverential, but See How They Run manages to do it. A whodunnit about making whodunnit’s, it’s not a laugh riot by any means, but writer Mark Chappell and director Tom George are fully aware of the clichés at play in the Christie murder mystery, and are perfectly willing to call them out as ridiculous as they go. The clash between American Hollywood and British conservatism in art is showcased hilariously in the over-the-top back-and-forths between Brody and Oyelowo, and Ronan is sure to make even the stoniest heart smile whenever her Stalker jumps to a conclusion just a touch too early. At the same time there is an obvious respect for the murder mystery, and for Christie in particular – she even makes a brief third act appearance, played by Shirley Henderson – in terms of how those stories tend to fascinate and how they are among the timeless of tales.
The actual murder mystery of this particular movie unfolds well. The intricacy of Knives Out is not present, but there are enough twists and turns, false trails and incorrect assumptions of suspiciousness, that you are bound to be kept guessing, but not in a frustrated way. We see lots of interesting characters thrown into a veritable pressure cooker, and watching how they deal with it is entertaining in itself. The solution, when it comes, is one that ties into the subtext of See How They Run – insofar as it is the stated satire/love letter to Christie – while also making perfect sense in the story presented. The strength of the two leads in terms of both performance and character seals the deal, as does the humour: when informing Stoppard that Köpernick was killed with a pair of skis, Stalker adds “And it was all downhill from there” with the brilliant delivery of an old-school comedic farce.
It’s the cast that really sells it of course. The big names and capable hands come and go in a flash, all seemingly delighted to be in this kind of production, and if there is a film this year that really demonstrates the power of a well-casted ensemble, this is it. Rockwell excels as Stoppard, a Detective barely able to muster the enthusiasm to hide his alcoholism and dire personal life, and matches ably with Ronan, whose Stalker is able to merge the needed comedic beats of a slightly-too-enthusiastic newcomer to the streets with the somewhat more dramatic stuff (indeed, it is probably long past time that we acknowledged Ronan’s comedic chops, with this far from the first time that she has displayed them). Of the others the real stand-outs are Dickinson as Richard Attenborough (who did indeed star in the first performances of The Mousetrap), Oyelowo has the writer wo just can’t help but use 20 dollar words when a one dollar word will do (Stalker mis-reads her notes on him as “over-rated”, which he corrects as “celebrated”), and Brady himself, whose victim pops up repeatedly as a narrator and dream guide to Stoppard.
The visual style of George, known to this point mostly for a few BBC comedy and drama shows, is very influenced by Wes Anderson, and one will see the signs of the maestro of symmetry all over the place. It’s in the well constructed sets, the pans across flat backgrounds, the clever use of flashbacks and the showcase that is constructed for the enormous cast to do their thing (Anderson’s dialogue is not present, so those who despise him for that reason don’t have to stay away). At times George can get surprisingly inventive: a mid-film sequence where a knocked out Stoppard wonders around a Narnia-esque winter background and ends up talking to the victim for a bit is specially interesting. At all times See How They Run maintains its course between comedic send-up and deadly serious replication: in the manner in which Köpernick’s death is seen (a suitably shadowed killer, but with a very brutal edge), in the way the suspects are lined up (with humorous montages matched with an interesting look at the clash between British and Hollywood sensibilities), in the larger depiction of a colourful post-war Britain (there’s palpable relief, but also some palpable grief) and all the way to a literal parlour-room scene (inherently funny in how it has all been done before, but with a very serious edge too: not unlike the opening murder actually).
This genre will never be totally out of style of course, it just tends to change with the times. We all remember the glut of extremely dark serial killer mysteries that took over the big screen in the late 90’s for example, before the genre seemed to turn to horror in a large way in the decade after. The industries’ current penchant for nostalgia has allowed for a return to the classic though, and if the peak of this new wave is Knives Out, and if the sublime runner up is Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot, then we can make some room at the top of the pedestal for the likes of See How They Run: a very familiar beast in its plot, in its beats, in its efforts to showcase an ensemble of actors as if it were the kind of stage show it depicts in its running time, but also something willing to merge in the new and unexpected: namely the comedy, which never crosses the line into becoming all-out satirical or disrespectful to the likes of Christie and those that enjoy her. This is one to enjoy, and while it might not be the best murder mystery out there at the moment, it’s still a welcome continuation on current trends.
(All images are copyright of Searchlight Pictures).
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