Whodunnit?

Sam Rockwell & Saorise Ronan play mismatched cops in a multi-level murder mystery

Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan star in ‘See How They Run.’

See How They Run
Starring Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan & Adrien Brody
Directed by Tom George
PG-13

In theaters Friday, Sept. 16

Who’s up for a whodunnit?

A lot of people, apparently, given the wide popularity of TV police procedurals, hit shows like Only Murders in the Building, movies (Knives Out, Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile) and the evergreen murder-mystery conundrums of author Agatha Christie.

In this cleverly comedic clue caper set in the early 1950s, a London theatrical production—of a real Agatha Christie murder mystery—goes off the rails when an actual murder (Eeeeek!) occurs backstage. Soon, a jaded Scotland Yard police inspector (Sam Rockwell) and an overzealous young constable trainee (Saoirse Ronan) arrive on the scene to investigate.

And then, as they say, the plot thickens, into a zesty swirl of possible suspects, likely motives and dizzying distractions, as the two coppers dig into the dish-y high-drama dilemma. “Don’t jump to conclusions,” Rockwell’s experienced sleuth cautions his greenhorn partner, who’s eager to peg almost everything as a case-closing revelation—and nearly everyone as a culprit.

British director Tom George, who honed his craft with short films and BBC comedy, makes his solid feature film debut with the support of a fine ensemble cast and an affection for the gloriously retro grit and glitz of London’s yesteryear theatrical world. He also shows a witty grasp of turning the time-honored traditions of murder mysteries inside out, then back onto themselves, into something fresh and lively and frequently surprising. 

Ruth WIlson, Reece Shearsmith, Harris Dickinson, Sian Clifford, Pearl Chanda, Jacob Fortune Lloyd, David Oyelowo and Ania Marson—there’s no shortage of suspects!

Rockwell, a versatile American actor with more than 110 movie and TV roles, adds a new character to his eclectic resume, which includes playing a stir-crazy astronaut (Moon), a superstar choreographer (Fosse/Verdon), President George W. Bush (Vice), a Nazi officer (JoJo Rabbit) and a groovy summertime guru (The Way Way Back). Here, he humanizes his role as the wry Scotland Yard veteran—limping along with a battlefield injury from World War II—with a rumpled, crumpled veneer of world-weary experience anchored to sobering physical and psychological wounds.

Ronan probably won’t net another Oscar nomination, to go along with her previous four, for Atonement, Brooklyn, Lady Bird and Little Women. But she serves up a quaint, likeable, restrained turn that recalls her quirky work with director Wes Anderson in The Grand Budapest Hotel and The French Dispatch. Like Rockwell, she subtly adds dimensionality to a role that could have been significantly thinner and more comedically drawn; Stocker, a war widow whose star-struck obsession with show biz is often good for a pun, is also an avatar of 1950s proto-feminism, a working-class mom determined to do her job and advance in it. 

Adrien Brody (who won an Oscar for The Pianist and appeared alongside Ronan in The French Dispatch) plays an American director in London to change whatever he must to refashion the West End stage sensation as a Hollywood movie hit—much to the chagrin of the outraged screenwriter (David Oyelowo), who’d rather adhere to traditional theatrical elements. There’s the film-to-be’s producer (Reece Shearsmith), sneaking around to hide his affair with his assistant (Pippa Bennett-Warner) from his wife (Sian Clifford, who played Claire on the TV series Fleabag).

Why was the theater manager (Ruth Wilson) so anxious to sell the movie rights to the play? What makes the star of the show (Harris Dickinson) and his actress spouse (Shirley Henderson) so smug? And what’s up with the usher (Charlie Cooper)? Does it have something to do with the sandbag counterweight that bonked him on his head?

The movie revels in classic murder-mystery conventions, giving them a deliciously self-aware twist. And it’s all a charming cinematic toast to the works of Agatha Christie, whose stories and novels have been turned into nearly 40 films and numerous plays—including six staged in London during the 1950s. One of them was, in fact, The Mousetrap, which is the very play at the center of See How They Run

On the stakeout.

Many of the character’s names are wink-wink references to other murder mysteries and actors. Director Alfred Hitchcock gets a shout-out, and so does ‘50s superstar Grace Kelly, who starred in four of Hitchcock’s films (including Rear Window, North by Northwest and Dial M for Murder) before she became Princess of Monaco. Rockwell’s Inspector Stoppard echoes the name of lauded playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, whose many works included a play about—much like See How They Run—a stage production rocked by a real murder. The inspector’s protégé, Constable Stocker, shares her name with the fictional detective Lise Stocker, who appeared in the French TV series Killer by the Lake. The play’s lead actor, “Dickie” Attenborough (playing a detective investigating the crime) might just be intended as a younger version—or a reminder—of the late, great British actor and director Sir Richard Attenborough, whose long career was capped off by his recurring role as John Hammond in the Jurassic Park franchise. The producer, John Wolff, is based on a real-life Oscar-winning Hollywood filmmaker of that same name, who brought several major projects (including The African Queen and Oliver!) to the screen.

Split-screen moments convey the idea that there’s more than one way to see things—quite apt for unraveling a murder mystery, where suspects and clues can be everywhere, anything might be significant, and no detail can be overlooked. A couple of scenes make use of mirrors, “looking glasses” that reflect reversed versions of the same image. At one point, the detective actor goes “Method” and incorporates a physical characteristic of the “real” detective, Inspector Stoppard; Stoppard later mimics—mirrors—the role of the stage actor. This inventive British potboiler, a mirror of classic murder mysteries, playfully blurs the lines between art and artifice, then sends them straight into a merry-mayhem loop-de-loop.

And in the final act of this film about a play being made into a movie, Agatha Christie herself (Shirley Henderson) makes a significant appearance—and the grand dame becomes part of her own drama.

“It’s a whodunnit,” Brody’s director says early on. “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all.” Ah, not quite—and don’t be so quick to pre-judge the clue-sniffing charms of this meta ode to murder mysteries, the stage and the screen, which shows there’s still plenty of movie mileage in smoking guns, tainted tea, cocktails, mismatched cops and guys in felt fedoras.

In other words, as Inspector Stoppard advises, don’t jump to conclusions.   

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