Murder mysteries are definitely in vogue in the world of cinema – having seen a modern spin on the genre recently with Bodies Bodies Bodies, I’ve now gone the other way, with a period-set throwback and love letter to Agatha Christie in See How They Run.
A very funny, witty and meta addition to the genre, this film ignores the more po-faced direction taken by Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, in favour of poking fun and dissecting the art of the murder mystery (like Knives Out) but setting itself in prime Christie-era London and around the stage adaptation of one of her plays.
It’s 1950s London, and a starry cast and crew are performing The Mousetrap on stage to audience after audience. US director Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody) is set to adapt the hit show for the big screen with writer Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), while stage show star Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) takes the limelight. However, when someone is murdered for real and left on stage, hangdog Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and peppy Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) swoop in to investigate whodunnit among the people making the whodunnit.
First of all, for UK comedy fans it’s worth noting that the director is Tom George, who made This Country. He utilises a movie-level cast and crew to near perfection – there are no shaky cams or grotty Cotswold villages here – and adapts a very clever, meta script from Mark Chappell with comedic sensibilities intact.
While the inevitable reveal and twist is a little underwhelming given how clever the rest of the film is, it doesn’t detract for me from the excellent choices made in giving us a new angle on the murder mystery. The period setting is perfectly shot by Jamie D. Ramsay, who mixes post-war gloom with the sumptuous West End and homes of the well-to-do, with bright lights, Art Deco theatres and stately homes alike full of colour and life.
Daniel Pemberton’s jazzy and period-specific score gives what might have been a quite serious storyline a buoyant, speedy feel, perfectly matching the humour and only getting serious when… well, things get serious. But the film lives or dies on its story, and Chappell’s intelligent skewering of Christie’s famous stories, mixed with knowing asides to how such films and stories work, really sets this film apart.
It’s also unique in mixing real-life characters with fictional ones, which is an interesting choice and one that really intrigued me – particularly if a certain BBC nature legend was asked permission for his brother to be portrayed as part of a non-existent murder mystery! George’s capable comedy directing chops come in handy and perfectly dovetail with Chappell’s twisty, laugh-out-loud script, while editors Gary Dollner and Peter Lambert utilise split-screens, flashbacks and even dream sequences to spin us around as the story progresses. Even with these metatextual flourishes though, it’s easy to follow and enjoy.
An ensemble like this needs some great actors with comedy skills, and fortunately (and surprisingly in some cases) See How They Run is very well served. Sam Rockwell is a great, washed-up straight man as Stoppard (a great name if you know your playwrights), boasting a flawless English accent and managing dramatic and comedic scenes alike as well as he always does. Stoppard is surprisingly adept despite his affected unkempt appearance, and Rockwell is clearly loving his interplay with the film’s surprise package.
This comes in the form of Saoirse Ronan, excellent and surprisingly so as Stalker, the ever-so-keen and too enthusiastic constable Stoppard is saddled with on the case. A great actress when it comes to dramatic roles, I was really impressed with how funny she was here, and how good her chemistry was with Rockwell in a mentor-mentee one-two.
Adrien Brody continues this surprising performance trend with his boorish US director, ticking all the cliché boxes as an utter douche in another hilarious turn from an actor not known for comedy. He’s clearly loving playing the infuriating sleazebag, a clear satirical nod towards the UK snootiness to Hollywood “comin’ over ‘ere”, and his excellently wry voiceover anchors top nods to the genre’s stereotypes.
Outside of these three, there’s a rogue’s gallery offering great support. Ruth Wilson’s abrupt “the show must go on” theatre director (another dramatic actor showing comedic ability) and David Oyelowo’s outrageously effete and catty screenwriter are notable fictional characters, while Reece Shearsmith and Harris Dickinson portray real-life British stage and screen figureheads, Shearsmith portraying the haphazardly adulterous movie studio boss and Dickinson excellently mimicking the dashing, young Richard Attenborough (plummy accent and light-hearted mockery of the luvvie persona particularly).
Besides these, there’s Tim Key as an officious and bumbling police commissioner, and This Country’s Charlie Cooper bringing his trademark gormlessness and deadpan style to the role of a hapless usher at the theatre. One of the bigger laughs for me was seeing one of the stars of that excellent (and very local to me) comedy holding his own in scenes with bonafide Hollywood stars.
As already mentioned, while the conclusion is a slight letdown, otherwise this is a very enjoyable, cleverly written murder mystery with a strong sense of place and time, plus a great cast. I would happily watch Stoppard and Stalker investigate further metatextual theatrical crimes.