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Whodunits all the way down – ‘See How They Run’

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It’s hard to make a good movie about the theatre.

You would think that it would be relatively easy, considering the considerable overlap between the two worlds. It’s all about people coming together to tell a story, right? And yet, films that revolve around the theatrical world rarely seem to fully click. Sure, making the stage-to-screen transition with a script is a long-honored and successful tradition, but successful movies set in the theatre? Those come along much more rarely.

But rarely is not never.

Take “See How They Run,” the new film from Tom George. Written by Mark Chappell, it’s a screwball deconstruction of the time-tested murder mystery genre, bringing together layers and metalayers to mine laughs from one of the theatre’s most beloved traditions – the whodunit.

Packed with winks and nods to those of a theatrical persuasion, “See How They Run” offers a shaggy combination of affection for and skewering of the conventions of the theatre. All of it refracted through a foundational lens of the Grand Dame of mystery herself, Agatha Christie. It’s a murder mystery within a murder mystery within a murder mystery – whodunits all the way down.

In London’s West End in the 1950s, a production of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” is proving to be a massive hit. The cast – led by shining star Dickie Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) and produced by the indomitable Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson) – is the toast of the town, with the show set to mark its 100th performance and showing no signs of slowing down.

And this play has caught the eye of Hollywood. Producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith) has enlisted the aid of brash American director Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody) to bring this celebrated show to the big screen, though it should be noted that the terms of the play’s production present some potential obstacles.

But when a murder is committed on the night of that 100th show celebration, the mystery on stage takes a backseat to the one taking place off it.

Enter Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell), a hard-drinking law enforcement lifer whose lengthy list of missteps has left him as something of an afterthought in the department. Stoppard is paired with a bright-eyed newcomer to the force in Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) – a partnership that he is less than thrilled with. However, she’s the only help that Commissioner Scott (Tim Key) is offering, so away we go.

What follows is a narrative that both celebrates and subverts the fundamental nature of the murder mystery. Even as Stoppard and Stalker seek to solve the crime in front of them, others occur on the periphery. No one is safe from the mysterious killer … and everyone is a suspect.

Obviously, I’m not going to go too far into the details with regard to the plot of “See How They Run” – it’s all about the unraveling of the mystery, so I certainly won’t be the one to spoil it for you. Indeed, in the tradition of “The Mousetrap” itself, the film directly addresses the audience on multiple occasions in an effort to discourage viewers from sharing any such revelations with those who have yet to experience the mystery for themselves.

“See How They Run” is absolutely riddled with blurred lines such as this, references piled upon references, all aimed at the more theatrically-minded in the audience. Some are fairly overt jokes, but others are clearly intended for the theatre nerds.

To wit: there’s a line to the effect of “He’s a real hound, Inspector.” Said line is addressed to Inspector Stoppard. As someone who both holds deep affection for the celebrated English playwright Tom Stoppard and has literally played the titular role in Stoppard’s play “The Real Inspector Hound,” well … you can imagine my delight. Kind of a deep cut, but if you know, you know.

It’s an interesting conceit, making a Christie-esque murder mystery film that revolves around an actual Agatha Christie play. The playfulness that springs from the meta nature of the story results in a delightful, albeit somewhat uneven, bit of frothy fun. The snappy patter of the rhythmic dialogue, the marvelous opulence of the period-appropriate production design, the obvious affection for the subject matter – it all comes together in a rambling delight that works far more often than it doesn’t.

Sam Rockwell is an absolute joy as Inspector Stoppard, embodying the combination of world-weariness and grudging competence that often marks those who attempt to solve these types of fictional cases. He is charmingly rumpled throughout. Saoirse Ronan serves as an ideal counterpoint to Stoppard’s cynicism, putting forth a go-getter positivity that juxtaposes perfectly with what Rockwell brings to the table. The two of them together have great chemistry throughout the ebbs and flows of their unconventional partnership.

It's a stacked supporting cast as well. Brody is outstanding as he serves the story in a couple of capacities. Wilson and Shearsmith and Key are all spot on. Dickinson is an affably self-absorbed hoot as Attenborough. We get some great turns from folks like David Oyelowo and Charlie Cooper as well. The truth is that this is a nice, tight ensemble, with everyone contributing to the cause and generally taking care of business.

I’ll concede that “See How They Run” might not be for everyone; the subject matter is fairly niche, after all, though I would argue that even if you aren’t in on all of the inside baseball theatre references, there’s still more than enough here to hold your interest. After all, it is a great cast using a genre classic as a jumping off point – you could do worse. And if you ARE someone with a theatrical bent, well … run, don’t walk, as they say, and see for yourself.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 19 September 2022 10:20

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