“Let’s not jump to any conclusions, Constable.”
Back in the mid-2000s, I was planning my first solo trip to London and everything I was going to do there. I was determined to have an experience that was part Dickens, part cool Britannia. Naturally, I was going to go see a play. I had settled on The Mousetrap, which by that time had already achieved its reputation as being the longest-running play in the city’s history, but which I knew nothing about, despite being a fan of its creator. Just before I left on my trip, however, an English professor of mine used the ending of The Mousetrap in a lesson, revealing the identity of the killer and spoiling the entire play for me before I’d even left the country.
The professor probably thought the play was so famous, that most of the class knew it already, and the rest weren’t likely to pick it up if they hadn’t by that point. Maybe it’s because I never got over the experience that was taken from me that spiked my interest in See How They Run, the new comedy/mystery. In it, the legendary play features quite prominently and cleverly, acting as the primary motive of the film’s killer while sharing key plot elements with the story throughout. But while The Mousetrap will no doubt continue to live on for new generations to discover, See How They Run will more than likely be forgotten.
It’s early 50s London and Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap is all the rage on the West End. An obnoxious Hollywood director named Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody) has come to the city to begin the process of adapting the work for the big screen. However, all plans come to a halt when the reviled figure is murdered on the night of the play’s 100th performance. Soon, Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) are on the case. With a list of suspects that includes a sensitive playwright (David Oyelowo) and actor Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson), the two find themselves in a case that’s almost worthy of Christie herself.
Believe me when I say that I wanted See How They Run to work. Everything about the film, from the premise, cast, and especially the enticing trailer assured me that it would. Yet for whatever reason, it didn’t. The biggest stumbling block here is the film’s humor. Every laugh director Tom George and screenwriter Mark Chappell have inserted is too easy and can be seen coming a mile away. The film goes back and forth between slapstick, wordplay, and good old-fashioned drollness yet doesn’t succeed at any of them, mainly because it doesn’t execute any of the laughs in a bold or novel way.
This eventually extends to the rest of the film as a whole, which is so by the numbers, you can even tell where certain characters are going to look next in any one scene. The split screen method is used here quite often but adds virtually nothing to the proceedings and a narration by the victim himself is used so sparingly, that it’s a wonder why Brody even bothered to show up to the recording sessions. Even an elaborately staged set piece in which the real-time events mirror those on the stage and a brief dream sequence don’t have the desired effects despite being adequately executed.
At this point it may not sound like See How They Run doesn’t do anything right, especially since I’ve criticized so many of its primary selling points. Yet, even in its failures, there is a sense of belief in the material from all involved and its attempts to bring it to life that cannot help but come across as admirable. It’s because of this spirit that some elements do end up working. The film wastes no opportunity in poking fun at itself calling out many of the genre conventions it’s taking advantage of. Flashbacks, character types, and even the aforementioned voiceover all get pointed out playfully.
Beyond that, the visual pleasures of See How They Run do their best (and very nearly succeed) in making up for the narrative shortcomings. The film is incredibly lush and very stunning to look at, easily placing us in the glamour of 1950s London as it was imagined to be. Beyond that, the interweaving of historical figures and events is admittedly pretty seamless and even though no character was given more than just a passing thought during the screenwriting process, there is a small amount of joy experienced in watching the relationship between Stoppard and Stalker progress.
Rockwell has long been one of my favorite actors and his Oscar win back in 2017 was perhaps one of the most satisfying of the night for me. Unfortunately, the typically dynamic actor becomes a victim of miscasting here as he is never able to fully settle into the role of the grizzled inspector. It isn’t that the character is badly written, or that Rockwell isn’t giving it his all, but rather that the two were never meant to cross paths.
Ronan fares far better with Stalker. Playing into the comedic aspects of the character with wide eyes and careful precision, she walks away with every scene. As for the rest of the cast, most of them (over) play their parts with gusto, but add little else, especially a rather hammy Brody. The one exception is Dickinson, who has a ball with his smarmy Attenborough, showing another side to his emerging talent.
The whodunnit has always been something of an endangered species. Sure, there are those beloved titles that mystery lovers cling to, but on the whole, this is a genre that’s never gotten its full due in the film world. On paper, See How They Run should have been another one of those titles; pure catnip for the murder mystery film lover who surely would have included it among their favorites of the year. The success of recent Christie adaptations shows the author’s name is still potent, while the era of Knives Out and Only Murders in the Building proves that the whodunnit genre still maintains popularity. But with jokes that mostly fail, no actual suspense, or even genuine interest in who the killer is here, See How They Run sadly lets the genre down.