Your enjoyment of “See How They Run” will be determined by how much you like its two most prominent elements. The first is the genre of the classic British murder mystery, in which names such as Agatha Christie and Poirot were created and parodied, as well as meta-commented on. The second is the genre of self-referential commentary. In almost every shot, there are air quotes and winks to the audience. I’m not picky. So, because the film is superbly cast and beautifully shot, I found it amusing. Those who are unfamiliar with Agatha Christie and the darkly comic British Kitchen Sink era responses to her mysteries may find it so arch that their fillings will ache. Let me put it another way: If you know what The Mousetrap is and especially if you’ve seen it on stage, you’ll appreciate “See How They Run”. If you don’t recognize the title “The Real Inspector Hound” or can’t handle air quotes, maybe not. You have been warned.
“See How They Run” is a play by Agatha Christie that takes place in London around the celebration of the 100th performance of The Mousetrap. The Mousetrap is a play by Agatha Christie that is the longest-running play in history, opening in 1952 in London’s West End and, except for a pause during the pandemic, running ever since with over 28,000 performances. An American movie director named Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody) has arrived as a producer to negotiate the film rights to “The Mousetrap”.
If you’ve seen one murder mystery, you’ve seen them all, according to Köpernick – a briefly anonymous off-stage narrator who hasn’t even seen The Mousetrap but is sure it’s second-rate. They all begin with “an interminable prologue in which all the key players are introduced”, he says; we get a sense of their world and then the most unlikable character gets bumped off. That’s the cue for the entrance of the “world-weary detective,” who pokes his nose about, speaks to witnesses, makes a few wrong turns, and then assembles all of the suspects before pointing at the oddest one. Köpernick is in London since he has been blacklisted in Hollywood, and he informs us that he has been hired to make the film slightly less dull than the play.
In a classic British mystery, the first murder victim is either unknown or hated by everyone. Köpernick is in the second category. He’s slain behind the scenes, and a weary, hard-drinking detective with a limp appears on cue. Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) is the titular Inspector Stoppard, and he serves as another name-in-title meta-reference in this film. Tom Stoppard wrote The Real Inspector Hound at an early stage of his career, and it’s about as theatrical as you can get without breaking from reality. Others are named for Richard Attenborough, who was in the original Mousetrap cast and played the murderer in one of the other movies referred to, as well as Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes, who elegantly updated the classic British great house murder mystery in “Gosford Park.”
The film’s screenplay is “too clever by half,” in keeping with the mid-century period. This reaches its pinnacle when everyone winds up at Dame Agatha Christie’s home (for casual and non-fans, keep in mind that her second husband, Max Mallowan, is played by Lucian Msamati), although the only real-life connections are the names and Dame Agatha’s interest in poisons.
It all goes by quickly when we aren’t distracted by irrelevant flashbacks and knee-slappers like referring to a possible murder as “staged” because it is, in fact, on a stage. The performances and production values are entertaining for British mystery fans, with Saoirse Ronan again bringing pure delight as the eager young Constable Stalker (those names!) and the cast clearly having a lot of fun playing with genre conventions and archetypes. There are references to the British crime thriller 10 Rillington Place, as well as a terrible real-life murder that may have inspired The Mousetrap. If all of this sounds like too much trouble, you should probably stick with the original or better meta-mysteries such as “Knives Out” and its forthcoming sequel “Glass Onion,” which is also outrageously funny, and The Play That Goes Wrong.
Though still stylish and enthusiastic, the mystery itself falls short in comparison to those created by Dame Agatha. However, no one has been able to surpass her either.
Now playing on Cinema HD.
Directed by: Tom George
Written by: Mark Chappell
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Ruth Wilson, Reece Shearsmith, Harris Dickinson, David Oyelowo
Release dates: 9 September 2022 (United Kingdom), 16 September 2022 (United States)
Running time: 98 minutes