See How They Run

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A kind of meta-The Mousetrap, See How They Run plonks itself down on the sofa alongside the other representatives of the whodunit revival – the likes of Knives Out and Kenneth Branagh’s adaptations of Agatha Christie. In essence it’s Agatha Christie’s venerable long-running play subjected to mock trial by a thousand in-jokes, some knowing, others oblique. If a slightly more cerebral Sunday afternoon movie is what you’re looking for, this could be for you.

The film comes at The Mousetrap sideways because the Agatha Christie estate will not sanction any film version of the play until its London West End run is over (it’s been running since 1952 and shows no sign of exhaustion). The plot nods to that detail – it features a womanising director (Adrien Brody) trying to turn The Mousetrap into a movie after its 100th performance. Also up for examination are the director’s swishy writer (David Oyelowo), a tough theatrical impresario (Ruth Wilson), a movie producer (Reece Shearsmith), plus actors Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) and his wife Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda) – Attenborough and Sim were the first to play Detective Sergeant Trotter and Mollie Ralston, owner of the guesthouse where The Mousetrap‘s murder is committed.

As it soon has here. No spoilers, but the death is an ironic one and it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person. It’s followed swiftly by the arrival of two cops, the keen-as-mustard movie-loving Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) and disillusioned boozer Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell). In classic mismatched-buddy, odd-couple style, the two set off to find out whodunit, she too keen and he not half keen enough.

There’s good comedy value in this relationship. It is the heart of the movie, leaving the mechanics of the whodunit to trail along behind. Ronan and Rockwell both slightly overplay for comic effect, her relentless prattle, his dry silences and sideways looks. Ronan relies on her native Irish accent, while Rockwell takes an interesting new approach for an American playing a Brit – under-enunciating, almost mumbling – and it works. You can’t quite place Inspector Stoppard, by region or class (a game Brits never stop playing).

The cast in curtain call poses
A curtain call for the cast

What a great cast this is. Even further down the cast list – Charlie Cooper, Tim Key, Sian Clifford – there’s a lot of quality. But all of them, big or small, feel a touch underused. There’s a hole in the middle of this movie where character development might have been. Of course there’s never really any character development in Christie, so maybe that’s a touch unfair. But even so, as Stoppard and Stalker question one suspect/possible future victim after another in the central section, there is a distinct lack of cut and thrust.

Instead of thick characterisation there are jokes. Inspector Stoppard’s name is a reference to playwright Tom Stoppard, who wrote the Christie-spoofing The Real Inspector Hound. The dénouement, when it comes, takes place in a country house in a room rigged to look just like the set of The Mousetrap. As we all know, the identity of the real killer should always be revealed, Poirot-like, by the Inspector. Mark Chappell’s wry, dry screenplay has a bit of fun with that too, as he does with the introduction towards the end of Agatha Christie herself (played by Shirley Henderson).

Tom George’s direction avoids flashiness – there’s some split-screen stuff at one point but that’s as tricksy as things gets. It’s a sedan chair of a movie, a gentle josh presenting 1950s London as a comforting place – the pubs Stoppard frequents look like ones worth seeking out. There’s a glimpse of The Ivy restaurant, a West End institution once the haunt of Noel Coward and Laurence Olivier. This is Money London dusting itself down as the Second World War receded into history.

Peer really hard and there is darkness here but it’s buried beneath a layer of cosiness and familiarity. It’s nice. Nothing wrong with nice.

See How They Run – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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