See How They Run
Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan make a cracking pair of 1950s sleuths in this Agatha Christie-loving murder-mystery.
September 28, 2022
UPDATE, November 18, 2022: See How They Run is still screening in Australian cinemas, and is available to stream via Disney+, Google Play, YouTube Movies, iTunes and Prime Video.
As every murder-mystery does, See How They Run asks a specific question: whodunnit? This 1950s-set flick also solves another query, one that's lingered over Hollywood for seven decades now thanks to Agatha Christie. If this movie's moniker has you thinking about mouse-focused nursery rhymes, that's by design — and characters do scurry around chaotically — however, it could also have you pondering the famed author's play The Mousetrap. The latter first hit theatres in London's West End in 1952 and has stayed there ever since, other than an enforced pandemic-era shutdown in COVID-19's early days. The show operates under a set stipulation regarding the big-screen rights, too, meaning that it can't be turned into a film until the original production has stopped treading the boards for at least six months. As that's never happened, how do you get it into cinemas anyway? Make a movie about trying to make The Mousetrap into a movie, aka See How They Run.
There's a clever-clever air to See How They Run's reason for existing. The same proves true of its narrative, the on-screen explanation about how The Mousetrap sits at the centre of this film's story, and the way it details those rules around adapting the play for cinema. Voiced by in-movie director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody, Blonde), that winking attitude resembles the Scream franchise's take on the horror genre, but with murder-mysteries — and it also smarts in its knowing rundown about how whodunnits work, who's who among the main players-slash-suspects and what leads to the central homicide. First-time feature filmmaker Tom George (This Country) and screenwriter Mark Chappell (Flaked) still craft a film that's enjoyable-enough, though, albeit somehow both satirical and by the numbers. Keeping audiences guessing isn't the picture's strong suit. Matching its own comparison to Christie isn't either. But the leads and snappy sense of fun make this a mostly entertaining game of on-screen Cluedo.
Was it actor Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson, Where the Crawdads Sing), his fellow-thespian wife Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda, War of the Worlds), big-time movie producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith, Venom: Let There Be Carnage) or his spouse Edana Romney (Sian Clifford, The Duke) getting murderous in the costume shop at the backstage party celebrating The Mousetrap's 100th show? (And yes, they're all real-life figures.) Or, was it the play's producer Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson, His Dark Materials), the proposed feature adaptation's screenwriter Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo, Chaos Walking) or his Italian lover Gio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, The Queen's Gambit)? They're among See How They Run's other enquiries, which Scotland Yard's Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell, Richard Jewell) and Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan, The French Dispatch) try to answer. After the death that kicks off the film, the two cops are on the case, working through their odd-couple vibe as they sleuth.
Naturally, everyone that was in the theatre on the night in question is a suspect. Just as expectedly, convolutions and complications abound. Plus, possible motives keep stacking up — and there's plenty of in-fighting among the stage and screen in-crowd who might've done the deed. In other words, even with equally parodying and paying homage to all things murder-mystery chief among See How They Run's aims (alongside showing off that it thinks it knows the basics as well as Christie), it isn't blind to following the standard formula. The guiding narration, which notes that it's always the most unlikeable character that gets bumped off, takes a ribbing approach; "seen one, you've seen 'em all" it advises, because Köpernick was charged with helming The Mousetrap's leap into movies, wasn't so impressed with the source material, then advocated for violence and explosions to spice up the whole thing. Yes, viewers are meant to see parallels between what he's saying and what they're watching. Yes, being that self-aware and meta truly is a feature-long commitment.
The Mousetrap mightn't actually ring a bell for everyone going into See How They Run, however. That's not overly astonishing — Christie not only put her demands regarding a movie version into a contract, thinking it'd only be onstage for a handful of months, but also decreed that each show finishes with the cast getting the audience to promise that they won't give away the play's secrets. As a result, it hasn't enjoyed Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile's broader recognition, and this flick mightn't make you want to seek it out. A rousing advertisement for The Mousetrap, See How They Run definitely isn't. There's an odd feeling to Chappell's gags at the play's expense, which are as thudding as they are superfluous.
Thankfully, there's nothing surplus about the central double-act that is Rockwell and Ronan, two consistently stellar actors proving just that again here. While their co-stars do exactly what they need to and no more, he plays fraying and shambling with an attention-grabbing sense of physicality — he doesn't dance, sorry, but movement is still pivotal to building Stoppard as a character — and she sports a keen-as-mustard vibe that could've carried over from her Wes Anderson film appearances. The strongest feeling emanating from See How They Run when it's all over and solved: teaming up Rockwell and Ronan again, and ASAP. If there's room on-screen for multiple middling-at-best recent Hercule Poirot pictures, there's room for movies about a cracking pair inspired by the moustachioed Belgian and the English scribe behind him.
That lead casting is pivotal to helping See How They Run weather its excess of nudging — and those ill-thought-out The Mousetrap digs — but the film is still never quite the three things it blatantly wants to be. It isn't up there with Christie's page-turner best, and nor is it as sharp as the smart and slick Knives Out, or what'd happen if Wes Anderson was indeed directing Ronan and his fellow frequent star Brody in an immaculately styled whoddunnit. Looking the part isn't a problem; the delightful aesthetic, with its symmetry, rich hues and ornate detail, shines bright. Just as lively and enticing: the gleaming cinematography by Jamie Ramsay (Mothering Sunday) and the jazzy score by Daniel Pemberton (Slow Horses). But if See How They Run was one of its own characters, it'd be the know-it-all who thinks they've fulfilled their role perfectly, yet doesn't quite. Every murder-mystery has one; this film, while largely engaging to play along with, is one.
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