Dir: Tom George. Starring: Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Ruth Wilson, Reece Shearsmith, Harris Dickinson, David Oyelowo. 12A, 98 minutes.
Could the all-star whodunnit finally save us from the monotony of superheroes? That’s the tantalising promise embedded in See How They Run, which may feel as cynically constructed as any of Marvel’s corporate-minded affairs, but goes down as sweet and light as a fondant fancy. It’s an equal-parts concoction of Rian Johnson’s wry, self-aware Knives Out and the aristocratic romanticism of Kenneth Branagh’s Agatha Christie adaptations. And if its ambitions towards broad likeability weren’t already obvious enough, the film’s caked in the Wes Anderson aesthetic – obsessive symmetry, bright palettes, French New Wave-inspired camera trickery. You also have to wonder whether the presence of two of his regulars – Saoirse Ronan and Adrien Brody – means they themselves weren’t wickedly deceived into signing their contracts. Are they aware this isn’t actually a follow-up to The French Dispatch?
But, somehow – and almost against odds – See How They Run is a real pleasure to consume. If the appeal of the Marvel universe can be whittled down to a feeling of familiarity and stability in unwieldy times, then there’s not much that separates it from the legacy of Christie and her many successors. Both are rooted in a reassurance that justice can be restored and mayhem tamed. Christie wrote under the shadow of war, and the crime genre has always waxed and waned in accordance with our collective feelings of security. See How They Run follows all the rigorous codes of the genre: a dead body and a detective (or two); a colourful assortment of suspects; answers provided in neat, monologue form.
The deceased, in this case, is discovered plonked onto a prop couch centre stage at The Ambassadors Theatre in London’s West End, where Christie’s The Mousetrap has just completed its 100th performance. The film mentions the real-life contract clause that bars a film adaptation from being made until the show’s run has ended – the grand joke of it all being that The Mousetrap is now the longest-running play in the world, still active at the St Martin’s next door (minus its brief, Covid-related closure). Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell), with the assistance of rookie constable Stalker (Ronan), are on the case. The pickings of would-be murderers are rich, since they include some of The Mousetrap’s original cast, Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) and Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda).
See How They Run marks the directorial debut of Tom George, the man behind all three seasons of the BBC mockumentary This Country. He’s carried over the same ethos here – hand a strong cast a set of well-defined characters and let them run wild (series stars Charlie Cooper and Paul Chahidi also crop up). It’s the sort of ensemble film that plays like a tennis match, as David Oyelowo’s ostentatious screenwriter lobs one-liners at Sian Clifford’s brittle producer’s wife, who lobs one-liners at Dickinson’s luvvie-ish Attenborough. Ronan, however, ultimately comes out on top. She plays Stalker’s eager naivety with the same kind of gentle slapstick quality of a baby deer wobbling around on its legs for the first time.
As pure elevator pitch, See How They Run does admittedly come off a little trite. To copy Wes Anderson without also indulging in his profound sense of melancholy makes it no better a homage than an Instagram post of a satchel bag and a beret. But the film’s so plain in its ambitions – in its sense of giddy, well-intentioned fun – that it feels a little pointless to scorn its more superficial choices.
The same could easily be said of all its knowing winks to the camera. Brody’s Leo Kopernick, a film director who serves as the story’s narrator, introduces the tale with a broad evisceration of the murder mystery genre: “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all”. But there’s no air of smugness to this gambit. Mark Chappell’s script playfully indulges in the very same contrivances that it parodies. Oyelowo’s character bemoans flashback sequences in movies as “the last resort of a moribund imagination” – in the middle of a flashback. When it comes to See How They Run, spotting the puppet’s strings is very much part of the pleasure.
‘See How They Run’ is in cinemas from 9 September