See How They Run seems unlikely to win the widespread acclaim of fellow Agatha Christie pastiche Knives Out (2019), but it is still a bright and amusing confection. A little more predictable perhaps, as it signposts its narrative fairly obviously, but when it scores a laugh it is generally a pretty big one. See it with a like-minded crowd in a movie theatre for the best effect: this is a charming – and charmingly self-aware – night out at the pictures.
Celebrations for the 100th performance of Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap are interrupted when film director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody), the American filmmaker hired to make the screen adaptation, is murdered backstage. With a list of suspects including the play’s director (Ruth Wilson), a screenwriter (David Oyelowo) and film producer (Reece Shearsmith) and even theatrical stars Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) and Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda), it is down to police officers Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and Stalker (Saiorse Ronan) to solve the case.
Despite outward appearances, there is a lot more going on under the hood than viewers might expect. More than an Agatha Christie pastiche, this is a surprisingly detailed combination of genre satire and love letter. The comedy works on multiple levels and in differing styles, including slapstick, parody, and humorous characters. The dialogue is peppered with in-jokes, puns, and references, as if writer Mark Chappell packed a shotgun with the complete Christie works and pulled the trigger. More than Christie in fact: the self-awareness extends not only to Christie but other pre-existing satires: Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound gets referenced at least twice, with numerous other nods coming in such a rapid-fire fashion that it’s doubtful anyone but the most ardent murder mystery fans with recognise them all.
The focus on old-fashioned tropes does give See How They Run an appropriately old-fashioned fell, and for the most part Chappell’s screenplay could have been comfortably filmed in the 1980s or even the 1960s without seeming out-of-place. In a few key moments, however, things suddenly feel aggressively contemporary – including a pointed sequence regarding the currently-popular genre of true crime.
It turns out there is a lot of truth to the film in general. While nobody ever got murdered behind the scenes of The Mousetrap, it is a real play and half of the film’s characters are inspired by and named after real people. This is a particular delight in the case of Richard Attenborough, who genuinely was the original star of The Mousetrap in London’s West End and whose distinctive manner and personality are wonderfully captured by Harris Dickinson.
For many viewers, the film’s cast are going to be the largest draw. Sam Rockwell, struggling here with a wobbly English accent, is a widely regarded comic performer, and he is well matched by Saoirse Ronan’s pitch-perfect over-enthused sidekick. There is absolutely no indication that their characters will return, but there is franchise material written all over them. The supporting cast are rock-solid, particularly the wonderful Shirley Henderson in a late but impeccably performed appearance.
There are superficial similarities to Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, it must be said – not to mention the aesthetics of director Wes Anderson. It would be a mistake consider See How They Run as derivative of either filmmaker, however; instead all three – Johnson, Anderson, and See How They Run‘s Tom George – are clearly drawing inspiration from the same well of artifice. George does a snappy job of capturing the style of classic British comedy. While this is his debut feature, it is no surprise to discover he has forged a successful career directing comedy at the BBC.
I cannot help but fear See How They Run is going to get underrated at large. It does what it does with such apparent ease, and superficially seems very much another pastiche in a wide field of such works. There is much to appreciate here, and layers of comedy that will probably take a secondary viewing to fully appreciate.
See How They Run is currently screening in Australian cinemas.