In his feature directorial debut “See How They Run,” Tom George delivers a new take on the Agatha Christie locked-room mystery. The film unleashes its glitzy cast on the streets of 1950s London, where they clash over the fate of a long-running West End stage production, extramarital dalliances, and the mysterious death of Hollywood director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody). The result is a funny, stylish, but ultimately unsatisfying whodunit that glitters with Wes Anderson-esque visuals but struggles to stir up suspense, losing resonance in its last act.
Starting with the film’s premise itself, “See How They Run” layers together real-life history, made-up mystery, and satire, drawing inspiration from Agatha Christie’s stage play “The Mousetrap.” That real-life play ran from 1952 to 2020 and was the longest-running West End play of all time. The film revolves around a fictional production of “The Mousetrap” starring hot-shot actor Dickie Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) and his wife Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda), and it opens on the night of the play’s 100th performance. As the cast and their benefactors ring in the occasion, Köpernick butts heads with Attenborough and argues with playwright Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo). Of course, nobody seems that shocked when he turns up dead backstage, kicking off a chaotic murder investigation led by Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).
Over the course of the film, Stoppard and Stalker track their suspects around the city, popping in and out of theaters, pubs, posh 1950s offices, and lush apartments. The spaces are all outfitted with a visual decadence and symmetry that will ring familiar to Wes Anderson fans (a parallel deepened by George’s frequent whip-pans, which give the whole film a “Grand Budapest Hotel” gloss.) As the detectives interview potential suspects, a clearer picture of an anarchic theater, failing film adaptation, and constant creative conflicts emerge — all overshadowed by the looming personality of Agatha Christie herself.
Though much of the film unfolds in interviews, stakeouts, and quirky police work sequences, most of the real revelations in the case come from flashbacks, which are spliced throughout. Though the flashbacks are quick-moving and prettily-staged, they untether the narrative from time and place to confusing effect. As the narrative jumps back and forth in time, the tight-wire tension that drives the mystery fades, relaxing into a general atmosphere of catty dysfunction with a few false leads and empty clues. While the film’s conceit of building out the locked-room thriller and bringing the characters into the real world works initially, the film struggles to maintain suspense without a contained environment. There aren’t enough consistent interactions between its eclectic characters to showcase the film’s stellar cast, and the potential villains rarely embody the sinister shiftiness they’re supposed to.
While suspicion shifts to several different characters over the course of the film, their motives are rarely surprising, and the beats of the mystery feel flat as the finale nears. The film shines more in its humor than its suspense, mining self-aware comedy from its characters’ antics, from Köpernick and Cocker-Norris’s arguments over the literary value of flashbacks to Stalker’s propensity to jump to conclusions.
In true Christie style, the film is animated by a cast of eccentric, slightly unbelievable characters, from the conniving theater owner Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson) to the sleazy film producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith) and his uptight wife Edana (Sian Clifford). The ensemble cast delivers solid, often funny performances and easy chemistry across the board, giving fight scenes and interrogations a needed spark. Ronan and Rockwell work well together as an unlikely duo, with Stoppard’s alcoholic jadedness compleimenting Stalker’s bright-eyed eagerness. Ronan in particular is a comedic standout in the cast, perfectly toeing the line between earnest dedication and sharp-eyed skepticism.
The film also benefits from charming production design by Amanda McArthur and neat cinematography by Jamie Ramsay (whose muted, lush visuals are also on display in recent release “Mothering Sunday”). Together, they give the film a storybook edge and lightens its tone even as Stoppard’s alcoholism and the theater’s bleak prospects threaten to break the spell.
Altogether, though, the film’s charms feel superficial — at the heart of the story is a mystery that often feels muddled and mundane, leading to an anticlimactic finish. Christie’s novels draw tension and momentum from well-drawn characters with complex backstories and motives, but the film fails to replicate that depth. The breadth and quirkiness of the movie’s ensemble comes at the cost of real character exploration, preventing the viewer from truly connecting with the characters or caring about their fates. Overall, one gets a sense that their conflicts would play out more interestingly in the types of tense, contained environments that Christie is known for, rather than the cutesy midcentury city conjured in the film.
—Staff writer Harper R. Oreck can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @harperrayo.
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