Smug, semi-spoof murder mystery which can’t decide whether it loves or scorns the genre
Director: Tom George
Cast: Sam Rockwell (Inspector Stoppard), Saoirse Ronan (Constable Stalker), Adrien Brody (Leo Köpernick), Ruth Wilson (Petula Spencer), Reece Shearsmith (John Woolf), Harris Dickinson (Richard Attenborough), David Oyelowo (Mervyn Crocker-Harris), Charlie Cooper (Dennis), Shirley Henderson (Agatha Christie), Pippa Bennett-Warner (Ann Saville), Pearl Chandra (Selia Sim), Paul Chahidi (Fellowes), Sian Clifford (Edana Romney), Lucian Msamati (Max Mallowan), Tim Key (Commissioner Harrold Scott), Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (Gio)
It’s the 100th performance of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap (“how much longer can it run”, the characters ask. If only they knew…) and producers are in talks for a big movie adaptation. At the party, boorish American film director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody) offends absolutely everyone – and promptly gets murdered. Not only are the cast (including Richard Attenborough – wittily impersonated by Harris Dickinson) suspect, but also the film producers which, contractually, can only go into production when the play closes. Investigating: dishevelled Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and his super enthusiastic sidekick Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).
See How They Run desperately wants to be a witty commentary on Agatha Christie style locked-room mysteries. It even opens with a voiceover from Brody’s Köpernick, full of scorn for the medium and its cliches before revealing, as per form, that as the least sympathetic character he himself is about to be knocked off. To be fair, there are one or two decent jokes. But the presence of Reece Shearsmith just made me think: Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s anthology dramady Inside No. 9 would have pulled off the same idea, but with far more wit and better understanding of Christie, in half an hour. And certainly with better jokes.
Instead See How They Run feels like it has only the most superficial understanding of Christie, based more on watching a few scenes of Poirot rather than reading the books. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out made a wittier, smarter and more enlightening commentary on Christie in its updating of the form, than this comedy ever manages. It’s never quite clear whether the makers want this to be a genuine Christie-style mystery or an inversion. Stoppard and Stalker go about their investigation in a traditional manner. The suspects all have motives of a sort. There is a definite mystery.
But it’s all lightweight and uninformed. Christie tropes are nudged and then ignored, as if the writers don’t understand them. What better opportunity could you have for Christie’s love for one mysterious character in the story turning out to be an actor in the group in disguise (invariably summarised by Poirot as “the performance of his/her life!”). There actually is a mysterious character here – but it turns out to be another person. Christie tropes around red herrings, secondary crimes, poison – all of them go unexplored.
The film ends with a deliberately counter-intuitive action sequence: but it’s not clear to me why. It’s neither particularly funny, nor does it feel like it has anything to say about the form other than offering an ending we might not expect. There is a nudge on the fourth wall (it’s the ending Köpernick wants) but what point is being made here? Is the action ending endorsing Köpernick’s belief that Christie-style mysteries are formulaic or boring, or is the shoot-out meant to look excessive and ridiculous? Is it implying everything we are watching is Köpernick’s dying fantasy? Is it a gag? I have no idea at all, and that sums up this tonal mess.
It’s a film that wants to have its cake and eat it. It tries to present a genuine murder mystery – and to be fair, when it does this, it does make for a good guessing game – but also wants to take potshots at the genre. It ends up doing neither particularly successfully. And there’s something a bit unlikeable about a film that wants to feed off the audience’s love of a Golden Age detective mystery, but also kinda wants to tell you how the thing you like is actually a bit stupid – and by extension so are you.
Its humour all too often feels a little studenty and obvious – the naming of Rockwell’s character as Stoppard being a case in point (although it does make for one good gag when Pearl Chandra’s charming Shelia Sim denounces another character as “a real hound, inspector”). It eventually feels like a rather smug film, which just goes to show how hard it is to make a Christie-style mystery.
If there is a decent joke in the thing, it’s that it manages to build a film where the plot of The Mousetrap is vital to the outcome, without ever revealing anything about what happens in The Mousetrap. (Presumably, the Christie estate would have had their guts for garters if they did.) Any moment where it looks like we might learn a major event in the play, a character interrupts or someone says “I already know”. These narrative gymnastics are the most inventive thing about it.
The other thing it’s got going for it is a performance of immense charm and comic likeability from Saoirse Ronan, who has rarely been as sweet, bubbly and adorkable as she is here. Ronan’s comic timing is excellent, and Stalker’s mixture of dogged determination and chronic over-enthusiasm provides virtually all the film’s highlights. Rockwell ambles through a (perhaps deliberately) under-written role, but most of the rest of the excellent cast feel under-utilised. Who casts Shearsmith and gives him not a single joke? Sian Clifford to deliver about three lines? David Oyelowo and Ruth Wilson do a lot with very little, but it’s telling that the final act appearance of Lucian Msamati and Paul Chahidi as a master-and-servant double act provides almost as much humour as the rest of the cast put together.
See How They Run passes the time – but that’s really about that. It doesn’t really have anything smart or funny to say about murder mysteries and it never offers anything truly unique or striking to justify itself (other than Ronan’s lovely performance). It’s straining as hard as it possibly can to ape the Coens or (most of all) the quirk of Wes Anderson, but totally lacks the skill and finesse of either. It feels like a film commissioned off the back of Knives Out success: but to be honest if you want to see something that brilliantly riffs off Christie while also being a bloody good mystery, just watch that instead.