A rookie WPC and her inspector try to solve a murder committed in 1950s London theatreland.
I love watching anything Agatha Christie-related: her tightly-plotted mysteries, clues in plain sight yet inexplicably invisible until that last drawing room denouement. And I love to follow her detectives’ methodology as I sit my two sons in the drawing room and tell them with a flourish that I have deduced it is the 10 year old, his mouth freckled with chocolate crumbs, who ate my Cadbury’s Flake(s).
Still, despite my tendency towards confirmation bias (I’ve paid money to see this! My dead father loved her!), not all Christie adaptations live up to my expectations, or indeed to previous adaptations; and I can’t remember being particularly enthralled when I actually saw The Mousetrap, the play around which this film is based, during its first London run (which ended in 2020, before you assume I’m about 90).
See How They Run is merely Christie-adjacent, though it does feature the woman herself, and as a whodunnit it’s certainly more AgFab than whocares.
It’s 1953, and WPC Stalker (a delightful Saoirse Ronan) and Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) are told “there’s been a murrduh” — sorry, wrong long-running crime drama — a murder, at the Ambassadors Theatre, home to The Mousetrap. The play, starring Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) and his wife Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda), has reached its 100th performance, and is soon to be made into a Hollywood film. The murder victim is the film’s director, Leo Köpernik (Adrien Brody), who, after being pushed into the celebratory cake by Dickie Attenborough, is then clobbered in the costume department by person unknown while looking for a clean outfit. The killer poses the body on the stage, sitting the dead Leo on the drawing room sofa with his tongue cut out.
Everyone present is both suspect and — as the film’s screenwriter Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo) presciently points out — potential second victim, and they comprise a typical Christie-esque group of the secretive, the threatened and the plain odd. Flashbacks show Mervyn threatening to kill Köpernik, overheard by the manager of the Savoy, when the director savages Mervyn’s screenplay. John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), the married producer of the upcoming movie, is having an affair with his assistant, Ann; he also needs the play’s run to end, as he’s not allowed to make his movie until six months after its London closure. The play’s star Dickie Attenborough is furious at Köpernik’s treatment of Sheila. And the play’s producer, impresario Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson), has a bizarre relationship with her elderly mother, employing her at the theatre so she can afford to pay rent to Petula.
Inspector Stoppard is mostly found in the pub, with WPC Stalker overcompensating by taking every minor admission as a confession of guilt. Meanwhile police commissioner and performative feminist Harrold Scott (Tim Key) is being pressured by the Home Secretary for fast results.
Stalker and Stoppard don’t get far very quickly, as he ignores any of the better suggestions she makes and she spends ages writing literally everything down in her notebook in case it turns out to be important later (which made me feel very seen in the darkened cinema as I tried to write down everything she was writing down in her notebook in case it turned out to be important later).
What initially looks like a straightforward classic whodunnit crossed with classic British farce (at one point Inspector Stoppard really does lose his trousers) becomes more layered, though the ending reveals it’s soullessness, guilty of exactly what the killer accuses Agatha Christie and those responsible for the Mousetrap play and film of.
It’s frenetic, and certainly clever, a game about revenge with its origins in real life, built around the actual first cast of The Mousetrap, which is a play based on a story about revenge with its origins in real life. Other elements of The Mousetrap find their way into See How They Run, along with references to other references to The Mousetrap. Inspector Stoppard’s name is a nod to playwright Tom Stoppard, who wrote The Real Inspector Hound, which features a barely-veiled Mousetrap-esque whodunnit play nestling within an additional murder mystery. And at Scotland Yard the investigation into the murders at 10 Rillington Place are taking up all the air in the room, a real case which was made into a hit film in 1971 with serial killer John Christie played by Richard Attenborough, who played the killer in The Mousetrap‘s first cast. Phew! It’s enough to make one sink onto a sofa and drink a cup of Schrodinger’s tea (poisoned and not poisoned at the same time).
Much of this is great fun, and though its breathlessness often stands in for actual jokes, overall this is a supremely amiable and very well-paced film, stuffed with engaging and watchable performances (particularly Ronan, Oyelowo, Wilson, and Charlie Cooper as theatre usher Dennis Corrigan, who looks spookily like a 1950s Gareth in The Office). At times its meta nose-tapping becomes rather wearing — mocking whodunnits when that’s what we’ve paid to watch — and there aren’t enough really funny gags, so caught up are they in referencing tropes and other plays and styles. Every now and then it reverts to slapstick, but not often enough to induce much laughter; and attempts at melancholy are glancing (Leo Köpernik finding out, in someone else’s hallucination, that no one is sad at his demise).
Still, it’s a fantastic-looking film — how could it not be? Those rosewood-panelled offices; the gorgeous outfits, from Sheila’s party dress to Ann’s nipped-in suit to Mervyn’s satin smoking jacket; the weeny, boxy police cars (and plentiful parking spaces); the champagne saucers.
See How They Run is a very enjoyable tangle of deceptions, though while these bind The Mousetrap and the Mousetrap-adjacent murders together in the seedy glamour of postwar London, it also asks a question prominent in our own so-called Culture Wars: power and freedom in the arts, the clash between who owns a story, and a writer’s right to pen whatever they wish (along with an ever-relevant reminder of the perils of jumping to conclusions and, ahem, confirmation bias).
Watch the trailer for See How They Run: