Director: Tom George
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Harris Dickinson, David Oyelowo
Opening with a long stretch of unnecessary narration that sounds like it’s aping a Los Angeles ’40s film noir as opposed to a British ’50s murder mystery, See How They Run mystifyingly sets out its stall of utter contempt. Dead man talking Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody) is the corpse at the centre of this undercooked whodunnit; a spin on Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap – West End gold for 70 years now – that starts by deriding the genre as a waste of time. Seen one, seen ’em all.
The intent, one supposes, is to conjure the kind of wry self-reflexive wit and sophistication of a Coen Brothers picture. Set up cynicism and disappointment, beguile with ingenuity. Unfortunately, Mark Chappell’s ghastly undercooked script can’t supply any aces. Boasting a bravura ensemble cast to make Wes Anderson weep, See How They Run wastes around 100 minutes of everybody’s time. Seemingly aware that they’ve signed on to a dead duck, barely any of the players show up for this hodgepodge of half-hearted laughs and pointless stylistic affectations. Christie – whom Chappell and director Tom George seem to openly despise – is better off not knowing.
Sam Rockwell is asleep at the wheel (figuratively and literally) playing boozy Inspector Stoppard, the detective assigned to investigate the murder of the aforementioned Kopernick; a hotshot Hollywood director who had just signed on to adapt Christie’s successful stage play. There’s a roster of underwritten suspects (Ruth Wilson, Reece Shearsmith, David Oyelowo – all given nothing to do) and absolutely no sense of impetus or intrigue.
Instead we’re treated to fatuous self-congratulatory motifs; characters droning or complaining about the machinations of a whodunnit followed-up by exactly the tropes decried. See How They Run believes its smugness is infectious. It isn’t. It’s like watching a sleepy teatime drama on TV with an over-excitable relative you try to avoid, except they’ve come over anyway. They’re gleefully pointing at the screen and gloating, “Look, look! Told you!”, unwittingly begging for a slap. Or else its like a dog that’s asking for a biscuit because it’s accidently gotten attention for doing something vaguely sentient.
In keeping with this charisma-free spirit of condescension, See How They Run indulges a painfully unfunny flashback in which Kopernick lays out in storyboard form his intentions for a changed ending, much to the concern of Oyelowo’s rote screenwriter and Shearsmith’s tired producer. Given the lack of restraint already exhibited, it effectively blows the mystery. You know whoever wrote this (Chappell) won’t be able to resist playing out just such a finale, and so it goes.
Bad decisions stack up. There’s a wholly unnecessary and poorly executed affection for split-screen that routinely throws us out of any given moment. The intention, one assumes, is to ape the whimsical spirit of the aforementioned Wes. No such luck. Instead its inclusion merely stunts the general flow. Elsewhere – in the midst of so much ‘hilarity’ – Harris Dickinson throws in an acceptable parody performance of Richard Attenborough who happens to be starring in this cursed production of The Mousetrap, but one is moved to ask… why bring Dickie into this at all? Especially as a majority of See How They Run‘s innate disapproval stems from the murdering of truth for frivolous fiction?
The Mousetrap can’t be adapted into a film, not while it’s still running in the West End (which, aside from a brief intermission for COVID, it always has been). This is part of a contractual obligation in place since its inception, and it is commented on here. Thus See How They Run can’t commit to the meta transposing of material that it keenly wants to. Art imitating art, so to speak. This sense of frustration is perhaps behind the odd negativity toward the notion of adaptation that comes to the fore. And yet See How They Run excludes its own vulgar goofing from this preening aura of general contempt. Come the end, one begs the film not to self-satisfyingly render Christie herself as some mawkish cartoon figure… but it just can’t help itself (Shirley Henderson, awful).
Stacked against all of this is poor Saoirse Ronan. Playing Constable Stalker – the plucky uniformed officer-in-training tasked to the resigned Inspector Stoppard – Ronan visibly enjoys the opportunity to flex some old-school comedic muscles that she’s rarely exercised so broadly. Her verve and energy carry much of the film and one can only shudder at the thought of how lifeless it would all have been without her. She’s the only one not guilty in all of this.
But she can’t save it. Not alone. Even though she tries. Pocked with awkward “wait for laugh” moments, See How They Run is one of the most embarrassing efforts to trundle into cinemas this year, chiefly because it thinks it’s getting it right.
Shearsmith’s character John Woolf really was an esteemed producer for Romulus and Remus Films. His office as imagined here is festooned with framed posters of his various successes. The African Queen. Laura. Their presence and even discussion in the picture casts an unfortunate and unflattering shadow over what we’re being asked to sit through. And, like Laura (and many other pictures like it from the ’40s), we’re asked earnestly not to reveal the secrets at the end of the movie so as not to ruin the experience for anyone else. As if there’s anything here to spoil that Chappell and George haven’t sabotaged already.