See How They Run: a light-hearted comedy mystery crime caper plays with crime genre elements to question the notion of authenticity

Tom George, “See How They Run” (2022)

Here is a fun and light-hearted comedy mystery crime caper which pays homage to Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” and packs in many film and stage drama stereotypes along the way. The plot itself plays out like an Agatha Christie crime novel in which a murder has just occurred and the detective is brought into the scene through various means, often because a character familiar with the victim or the victim’s friends and family also knows the detective through indirect connections. The detective then proceeds to interview everyone connected to the victim, usually a very unpleasant and obnoxious personality, and discovers every single person had a motive to get rid of the victim. At the end the detective gathers everyone around, tells everyone what s/he has done with the evidence gathered, and in spectacular fashion accuses one of the people present of being the murderer.

In this film, a party is being thrown to celebrate the 100th stage performance of “The Mousetrap”, at which the sleazy Hollywood film director, Leon Köpernick (Adrien Brody), attempts to proposition British actor Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda) and gets into a brawl with her husband Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson). Köpernick has to leave the party to clean himself up and is later found murdered, his body set up on a couch on stage just after “The Mousetrap” performance. Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and rookie PC Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) are assigned to investigate the case and arrest the murderer by Scotland Yard. They question all those associated with Köpernick, including script writer Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Ayelowo) who admits to arguing with the director over the latter’s idea of turning the play into a standard Hollywood crime flick with action and gore galore; film producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith) who was being blackmailed by Köpernick after Köpernick discovered him having an affair with his assistant Ann (Pippa Bennett-Warner); and Dennis (Charlie Cooper), an usher at the theatre who later served drinks at the party bash.

Stalker notices a photo of Stoppard’s wedding to his ex-wife Joyce after she takes him home, realises the woman resembles Köpernick’s ex-lover (also called Joyce) and investigates the possibility that he may be a suspect. This leads to Stoppard being knocked unconscious by Stalker while both are at the theatre during the 101st performance of the play and Cocker-Norris is found strangled dead. Stoppard wakes up in a jail cell and is told police have brought Köpernick’s ex-lover to the cell; she turns out not to be the same woman as the ex-wife. That little sub-plot stopped dead, Stoppard and Stalker later discover independently by going through Cocker-Norris’s research notes into “The Mousetrap”, and the real-life tragedy it was based on, the identity of Köpernick and Cocker-Norris’s killer. The detectives race to apprehend him at Agatha Christie’s remote country mansion before he can kill again.

As might be expected, the film is witty if very self-referential and hermetic with frequent punning references to aspects of the history of “The Mousetrap” and the people associated with the original stage play. Rockwell and Ronan as the mismatched crime-fighting duo play off each other very well and Ronan in particular shines as the bumbling rookie cop whose over-talkative personality and tendency to jump to conclusions hide a woman with a warm heart and potential to be a good detective once she has enough experience and know-how. US actor Rockwell perhaps sticks to the jaded Sam Spade stock character a bit too much but he blends into the British environment well and his character has an unexpected comic side as well. Of the rest of the cast, Brody is outstanding as the sleazy Köpernick. The film tends to lose its gloss in those few parts where Ronan, Rockwell and Brody are absent.

At the heart of the film are some serious issues about the use of real stories as source material for fiction aiming at entertainment and questions about authenticity and preserving the spirit of drama when it is adapted into media such as stage plays or film. Even film itself filters out real stories in the way it force-feeds them to fit film genre categories and the stereotypes associated with them, to say nothing of satisfying studio demands for profit and / or pandering to the lowest common denominator in audience tastes (as imagined perhaps by studios and script writers). The very arty, theatrical presentation of the film, extending to the use of multiple screens to present the action, and the way in which events in the plot follow Christie’s “The Mousetrap” itself, often parodies the use of cinematic and stage drama narrative devices and elements to build an artificial and twee 1950s Britain. In this Britain, the identity politics of the early 21st century cheerfully intrude with the casting of actors like Oyelowo, Bennett-Warner and Lucian Msawati (as Christie’s second husband!) in significant roles.

The droll tone of the film and Christie’s play itself convey little of the actual horror and brutality of the crime, involving the physical abuse of two young boys by their foster parents resulting in the death of one of the boys, on which they are very loosely based. There’s an irony in that the character of Köpernick, sleazy as he was, might have been more faithful to the actual crime if he’d been allowed to live and to change Cocker-Norris’s script with a greater emphasis on the violence, even if only to titillate mainstream American tastes and pop cultural preferences of the time.