The Mousetrap, Agatha Christie’s famous stage murder mystery, has never been filmed. When Christie signed the film rights over to producer John Woolf, she stipulated that the film could only be made six months after the play closed on the West End. It never has. Still going 70 years after it opened in 1952, The Mousetrap is the longest-running play in history. So the film never came to be.
That piece of trivia is a plot point in See How They Run, a game little meta-whodunit steeped in London theater lore. It’s also the origin story of the movie itself, if you believe the tale producer Damian Jones spins in the production notes. Jones was considering filming the play, he says, but when he discovered Christie had thwarted him, he saw a way to not just circumvent this obstacle, but to turn it to his advantage: He resolved to create a fictional whodunit about the whodunit, and turn the film rights themselves into one of the cogs in its murderous machine.
See How They Run, written by Mark Chappell and directed by Tom George, turns Christie inside out and upside down, and has a good laugh at the undignified spectacle that process creates. It satirizes the creaking mechanisms of the genre even as it leans on them. It’s an in-joke of a movie, and a pretty good one, enlivened by a terrific cast. But George and Chappell are a little too in love with their own postmodern cleverness, and not concerned enough with constructing as knotty and satisfying a mystery as, say, Rian Johnson’s whetstone-sharpened Knives Out.
The setup is wonderfully wicked, though. On the occasion of The Mousetrap’s 100th performance — in the real world, it has now run more than 27,500 times — the cast, led by Richard “Dickie” Attenborough (Harris Dickinson), assembles for a party. Film producer Woolf (Reece Shearsmith) is there, along with Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody), an odious, blacklisted Hollywood director Woolf has hired to make the film of the play. Supercilious playwright Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo) is tasked with the screenplay adaptation. Theater impresario Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson) simmers on the sidelines. Everyone’s a bit testy, for various reasons, and Kopernick and Attenborough get into a fistfight. At the end of the night, Kopernick turns up dead on stage. Can the show go on?
Given the production’s history, there’s a mischievous playfulness to this premise — and that’s before the police turn up. World-weary functioning alcoholic Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) has been paired with awkward but zealous new recruit Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) to solve the case. They don’t get any help, because the rest of the murder squad is focusing on the real-world, much darker, Rillington Place murders. Compared to those, this theaterland killing is just a bit of fun.
The wit and double-sided delicacy of this detail — underlining the innocuous silliness of the proceedings, while rooting them in a real time and place — is typical of what See How They Run offers, and it’s one of the movie’s principal pleasures. It’s more fun guessing which figures are caricatures of real people and which are cartoonish inventions than it is trying to figure out who the murderer is.
A couple of late-film cameos play into this warped reality for a hilarious, audacious payoff. The production design walks a similar line, creating a heightened, glitzy 1950s London with a surprisingly authentic texture. (The producers’ opportunism strikes again: The film was shot during the COVID-19 pandemic, which gave the production access to some of London’s grandest theaters and hotels to shoot in, as they were shuttered for lockdown.)
See How They Run works better as an outright comedy than as a murder mystery, although it doesn’t nail either form. Chappell’s script is loaded with tasty barbs, painful puns, and gently mocking characterization. George, a seasoned director of British TV comedy, knows how to set gags up and pay them off. But there’s a halting rhythm to it, and scenes sometimes coast too long in an airless haze in between jokes. Comedy, with its dependence on chemistry among the cast, must have been one of the hardest genres to shoot under pandemic conditions.
The cast ends up with the credit. Ronan, as the charmingly sincere Stalker, executes her comic bits with flawless timing and gets the biggest laughs without ever going broad or breaking character. Stalker’s credulous naiveté starts out as a joke — she notes down anything anyone says, and believes the case closed after every interview — but in Ronan’s hands becomes an endearing kind of heroism.
Contrasting her brightness with Rockwell’s jaded, mumbling Stoppard is right out of the buddy-cop playbook, but Rockwell’s amusingly underplayed turn complements Ronan’s perfectly. Stoppard just lets the hijinks happen around him with a shrug, and is somehow funnier for being such a stoic straight man.
Dickinson’s take on Attenborough is a riot, skewering a certain kind of genteel, leading-man fatuousness. The secondary cast is a murderer’s row of British TV and theater pros: people like Sian Clifford (Fleabag), Lucian Msamati (Game of Thrones), Tim Key (the various Alan Partridge projects), and Shirley Henderson (Harry Potter), who can pull off loving yet savage characterizations in the space of a couple of lines, and make it look effortless.
See How They Run is a lark, a self-referential sendup of theatrical and cinematic artifice. The trouble is, like most larks of its kind, it uses self-mockery as a get-out clause. There’s a voice-over from Adrien Brody as Kopernick, the deceased director, who disdainfully picks apart the cliches and rudimentary constructions of the whodunit genre from beyond the grave, moments before they appear on screen. His own basic Hollywood instincts are similarly mocked one moment and deployed the next. Having a character point out your film’s flaws doesn’t really excuse them. But it doesn’t invalidate the film’s pleasures, either. See How They Run is neither as clever as the creators think it is, nor as stupid as it sometimes pretends to be. It doesn’t have much to say about whodunits other than “Wouldn’t it be funny if they existed inside their own world?” And yes, it turns out, it would.
See How They Run opens in theaters on Sept. 16.