There are all sorts of reasons a critic could and would give a film a rave review. It could be because of a stellar script, crackling with wit and intelligence. It could be an all-star cast, all operating at the top of their game. It could even be just sheer proof of concept, the film pulling off its magic trick to great effect. All of these are true with See How They Run, the murder-mystery comedy by director Tom George and writer Mark Chappell, but the answer is far simpler than that. See How They Run is a film tailor-made to my interests – a funny, clever murder mystery based on the works of Agatha Christie. And if you like the films I recommend, or share any of those interests, then this is a film you’ll like, too.
In the mid-1950s, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is the most popular show in the world. So much so, that Hollywood has unsurprisingly come knocking, ready to adapt it and bring the classic tale to the world. However, everything comes to a halt when sleazy, alcoholic director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody) is found dead on the stage. The suspects are plentiful: the producer with a secret (Reece Shearsmith), the pompous screenwriter (David Oyelowo), and the foppish pretty boy actor, Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson). It’s up to seasoned Scotland Yard Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and the bubbly-but-naïve Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) to solve the case, in true Agatha Christie fashion.
See How They Run is a love letter to the Queen of Mystery in all the right ways. Sure, you could watch this film knowing almost nothing about Christie’s work. It’s a strong enough film on its own merit that background knowledge is unnecessary. It simply embraces her tropes by way of loving pastiche: an idiosyncratic detective, throwaway lines that become important later, a big twist that you may see coming, but more than likely won’t, etc. But Chappell’s script shines because he doesn’t just lean into the easter eggs: he revels in them. Little moments and references pop up consistently, both rewarding and taunting shrewd fans of the legendary author. In fact, there’s an entire subplot intended to mislead viewers that is a reference to one of Christie’s most famous endings. That’s an attention to detail one can’t help but admire.
It’s not just the references, either. Chappell’s script crackles from beginning to end, thanks to an intriguing mystery (if admittedly not exactly tight) and a litany of strong jokes. The wordplay thrives under the hands of a game cast (especially Ronan – we’ll get to her in a minute), the repartee zings in each and every scene, and, in one of the most surprising reveals of the film, Run plays as a meta-commentary on both the genre and cinema as a whole. In fact, this is an incredibly meta-referential picture – it’s less Knives Out and more Adaptation.
Run consistently finds ways to needle at the genre norms of the murder mystery, the often-disappointing film adaptations, and the art of the medium in general. Monologues comment on, critique, and foreshadow the events of the film. Flashbacks address the ridiculousness and obviousness of the use of flashbacks. And it all leads up to a finale which, while blatantly aped (perhaps the film’s only detriment) from Charlie Kaufman’s 2002 opus, is at least entertaining enough of a conclusion.
Gratefully, this all works because George’s direction remains consistently strong throughout its run. Everything about the film embraces the fun and the camp of its premise. The cinematography often utilizes fun angles, there’s shadow work offering the ever-present threat of menace, and plenty of split-screen edits feel fresh and exciting, all bouncing along to Daniel Pemberton’s jaunty score. George possesses the light touch of Blake Edwards, offering a perfectly balanced cocktail of wordplay, physical comedy, and light, breezy editing.
All of this is aided by an ever-game ensemble, including a handful of performers at the top of their game. While Rockwell is the largest name in the cast, and is solid as a gruff, alcoholic detective with a London accent as accurate as Dick van Dyke’s, the real star here is Saoirse Ronan. This is Ronan’s film throughout, a master class in comedy both verbal and physical, earnestly naïve yet never simplistic. Her bright-eyed optimism and commitment to every bit and joke is an unrivaled trait, and it is quite possible most of this film’s goodwill belongs to her. I do not make this comparison lightly: in many ways, Ms. Ronan reminded me of Peter Sellers’ legendary Inspector Clouseau – perhaps only from the lesser films, but a remarkable accomplishment nonetheless.
Outside of Ronan, the best performances come from a series of actors delightfully embracing the screenplay’s camp. David Oyelowo is delightful as a pompous, fey Hollywood screenwriter. Adrien Brody is a terrific heel, delivering skin-crawling lines as he marches onwards to his inevitable demise. And I was thoroughly entertained by Dickerson’s impression of the late Richard Attenborough. It’s not a dazzling impression, and the role could have been juicier, but it is enjoyable nonetheless. Fleabag’s terrific Sian Clifford is fun in her role, albeit underutilized, as are most of the remaining suspects and potential victims. Oh, and Shirley Henderson has a surprise cameo near the end that is truly a treat. From top to bottom, this is a game, fun ensemble worthy of the film’s screenplay.
See How They Run is an exemplary model of pastiche on every level. It is a film that left a smile on my face from beginning to end. The characters are endearing, the mystery a riot, and the commentary astute. And if my analysis hasn’t been enough to sell you, then allow me to provide an anecdote: I saw this film with a mid-sized audience of surprisingly varied backgrounds – men and women, old and young, families and individuals. And it is the hardest I’ve heard a crowd laugh at a comedy since pre-pandemic. There were applause breaks – that never happens. This is a fun film, emphasis on the “f” in both words. And you should do yourself a favor and see it as soon as possible.
See How They Run is now playing on HBO Max