Synopsis – In the West End of 1950s London, plans for a movie version of a smash-hit play come to an abrupt halt after a pivotal member of the crew is murdered.
My Take – With director Kenneth Branagh‘s Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and Death on the Nile (2022) being decent successes, and filmmaker Rian Johnson‘s Knives Out (2019) blowing away everyone’s expectations, and its sequel Glass Onion (2022) highly anticipated, I think it is safe to say that the murder mystery genre has effectively returned with vengeance.
And while this latest star-studded addition may seem like a studio’s attempt to capitalize on audience’s rediscovered love for whodunits, this Tom George directed and Mark Chappell (Flaked) written feature manages to find its own path by paying as much homage to Agatha Christie novels as well parodying it. Resulting in a likable, silly and relentlessly fun camp murder mystery, obviously inspired by the works of filmmaker Wes Anderson, that doesn’t take itself too seriously, even when it gets too clever for its own good.
Sure, it may not be the smartest whodunit out there, and the film works better as an outright comedy than as a murder mystery, but it contains enough charm to make up for its shortcomings. It knows what kind of film it is, and even goes so far to point it out repeatedly.
Yes, some may find this tongue in cheek self-awareness tiring, but it allows for a large cast of characters to interact with their conflicting personalities. Plus it benefits from its brisk 98 minutes given the surface appeal that can be dryly entertaining with a wry English novelty. Making it a light and fluffy affair.
Set in London’s West End in 1953 against the backdrop of Agatha Christie’s long-running stage hit “The Mousetrap,” the story follows Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and rookie Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) who find themselves assigned to the case of solving the murder of Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody), an odious, blacklisted Hollywood director who was working making a screen version of the said play that has just staged its 100th performance.
Left on their own as the rest of the station is busy with the Rillington Place murders, the tired policeman and the over enthusiastic constable, become a motley pair, almost from the start. But the more they look into the murder, the more the pair find themselves deeper in the puzzle.
Navigating the theater world, their list of suspects vary from Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), the highly strung writer who had been tasked with adapting The Mousetrap for the cinema, producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), theater impresario Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson) to renowned actors Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) and his wife Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda). Mild hijinks ensue, even as the danger rises.
What follows is your standard procedure in which Stalker and Stoppard piece together what happened the night Köpernick was murdered. Written by Mark Chappell and directed by Tom George, the film turns Christie inside out and upside down, and has a good laugh at the undignified spectacle that process creates. The biggest artistic choice, the one that will ultimately win or lose an audience, is the plot folding in on itself, becoming self-aware of its own tropes. It satirizes the creaking mechanisms of the genre even as it leans on them. It’s an in-joke of a film, and a pretty good one, enlivened by a terrific cast.
As things progress, we start noticing that the play within the film oddly resembles the case Stalker and Stoppard are dealing with. On stage sets resemble places characters visit, with dialogue and plot points also repeated. Before his demise, Köpernick describes an action scene he envisions for his film. That description matches a later set piece. Many will find this technique overbearing as that the production spends too much time trying to be witty as opposed to telling a developed, engaging story, but it undeniably is a fresh take.
It also helps that on an aesthetic level, the film is filled with eye candy. Post-war London is recreated with a nostalgic quality. The theater where the central action takes place, nearby hotels and pubs, the bustling police station, etc. – the art direction and set design create the backdrops with hyper-like textures. Fans of Wes Anderson (like myself) will immediately recognize the patterns. This isn’t the kind of tale one goes to find grittiness or documentary-like authenticity. Everything looks and feels polished
. Even though, director George and writer Chappell are a little too in love with their own cleverness, and not concerned enough with constructing as knotty and satisfying a mystery as one would have expected, the joy of the film isn’t with the identity of the criminal, but seeing the distinct characters clash in entertaining ways. Yes, it doesn’t flip the whodunit on its head or subvert its familiar traits, but the energy, visuals, and playfulness of the whole piece make it worth diving into.
Of course it helps that Sam Rockwell gives a great lead performance as the calm amongst a very chaotic storm of over the top performances with an impressively strong accent that never slips. Saoirse Ronan is excellent with fantastic comedic timing and an always lovable presence. In supporting roles, Adrien Brody gives an assured performance that manages to make his unlikable character charming, while David Oyelowo seem to be having the most fun, amongst the supporting players.
Harris Dickinson’s take on Attenborough is too a riot. In other roles, Ruth Wilson, Reece Shearsmith, Pearl Chanda, Charlie Cooper, Jacob Fortune Lloyd, Paul Chahidi, PippaBennett-Warner, Sian Clifford and Shirley Henderson are effortless. On the whole, ‘See How They Run’ is a fun and witty mystery romp that is full of charm.
Directed – Tom George
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 98 minutes