See How They Run doesn’t claim to be deep or important, it’s just a movie in love with the whodunnit genre, about which it comments frequently but says little of concern. A comedic mystery period piece about murders surrounding a production and movie adaptation of Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap, See How They Run will not let you forget that it is about adaptation. Though it isn’t an excavation of the difficulty of moving art between mediums, it at least manages to be funny while doing it.
See How They Run is the sort of movie that surprises you with how earnestly it delivers on its promise, hitting its mark exactly. It is the sort of movie where characters comment on plot absurdities in the droll and dry space between breaking the fourth wall and undercutting with snark. It’s a lot more palatable than the bright-eyed-but-exasperated faux-cynicism that’s become commonplace in some tentpole franchises, but its commitment to clever observation still nearly undercuts the genuine cleverness in the structure.
Saoirse Ronan leads the charge as the earnest and exuberant Constable Stalker, a rare woman in this version of 1952 Scotland Yard. Ronan is exceedingly charming as the inexperienced and enthusiastic officer paired with the adept but difficult Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell). The two are tasked by their dry, incurious, company man commissioner with uncovering who murdered the scoundrel of an American film director (Adrien Brody) imported to work on the film. This leads to interviews with the show-must-go-on play director (Ruth Wilson), the effusive but particular writer adapting the play to screen (David Oyelowo), the anxious film producer with the challenged marriage (Reece Shearsmith), an usher (Charlie Cooper) and the cast of the play, which includes fictionalized versions of Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda) and Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson).
See How They Run also includes a late entry by Agatha Christie (Shirley Henderson) and a race-bent version of her second husband, Max Mallowan (Lucian Msamati). I don’t know a lot about Mallowan, but early 20th century British archaeology is hardly known for its enlightened racial perspective. It’s unhealthy that some get so incensed by Black casts in fantasy spaces that refuting bigotry turns into free marketing for the biggest media companies in the world, but this isn’t exactly that. This is a Black British man portraying a historical white Englishman who helped the empire excavate Middle Eastern artifacts. If it were a more serious film, it would be a more serious offense. In this one, it’s, at best, ironic, with Msamati’s portrayal adding an inadvertent wrinkle to Mallowan bossing around his butler like any other member of the British elite. At worst, it’s attempted inclusiveness begetting a careless misremembrance of the past. I felt similar consternation around Adrian Lester as Lord Randolph in Mary Queen of Scots—it’s good to see Black and brown people reinserted to parts of history we’ve been excised from, but being imprecise or thoughtless about it can raise further problems.
Yet, See How They Run is narratively precise, calling its shot from so far out that it’s easy to miss the prediction. Fan of bemused wonder that I am, I chuckled more than I rolled my eyes at the ending. The smell test for the effectiveness of a whodunnit is whether the film gives us the tools to solve the mystery. This one does. It also allows us several bad guesses and red herrings. There’s only one moment in a chase that particularly stretched my suspension of disbelief, but its circumstances are set up well. See How They Run’s scope is a mixture of ambition and rudiment, lovingly deconstructing the murder mystery genre before walking right down the path it’s turned a floodlight toward. Its humor is delivered from clashing expressive personalities (with Oyelowo’s flamboyant eccentric being the most memorable character after Ronan’s), a tone that’s knowing without winking until the end, and a combination of situational gags in both physical comedy and edit-punctuated dialogue.
See How They Run is the feature debut of TV director Tom George. This is one of those times where the artistic product feels too much like a love letter and not enough like a definite statement. Sometimes a film fails to let you exist within it because it repeatedly calls attention to the fact that it’s a film. Still, it’s more subtle on a moment-to-moment basis than the year’s buddy action-comedies, though is it neither narrow nor inaccessible. Despite effectively crafting character conflicts and jokes around the messy business of moving life to the stage and then moving it from the stage to the screen, See How They Run feels like it’s missing some punch. It’s certainly clever, but almost too much so. There aren’t a lot of comedies set in post-war Britain this year, so that makes it stand out, but it too-frequently draws attention to its influences—which might make you wonder why you’re not watching one of those instead.
Director: Tom George
Writer: Mark Chappell
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Ruth Wilson, Reece Shearsmith, Harris Dickinson, David Oyelowo
Release Date: September 16, 2022
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.