Monday 12 September 2022

Guess who: "See How They Run"

The success of
Kenneth Branagh's Agatha Christie adaptations and Rian Johnson's Knives Out means that the murder-mystery is enjoying another moment. Always a sucker for drawing-room revelations, TV was quickest off the mark, giving armchair sleuths two seasons of Only Murders in the Building (on Disney+), the supremely fun Miller/Lord variant The Afterparty (on AppleTV+) and the recent, heavier-going The Resort (on Peacock/NOW). Just ahead of the Knives Out sequel Glass Onion, we now have the reasonably well-made British original See How They Run, directed by Tom George from a Mark Chappell script, set in London's theatreland, featuring an array of familiar faces, and that light period dressing our industry appears hellbent on applying to everything that passes in front of a camera. A newly re-energised Adrien Brody is the vulgarian American director murdered backstage at the Ambassadors Theatre in the first weeks of The Mousetrap's record-breaking run; boozy-grumpy Sam Rockwell (with wobbly English accent) and peachy-keen Saoirse Ronan are the inspector-constable pairing dispatched to investigate; and your suspects-potential victims for the evening comprise anybody with a BAFTA card who didn't get the Branagh call: David Oyelowo as a terribly precious playwright, Reece Shearsmith as the (real-life) producer John Woolf, Harris Dickinson (doing a great impersonation of the young Tom Courtenay) as the young Richard Attenborough, Charlie Cooper (whose This Country George directed) as a mirthless usher. It's a tombola-movie in its essence: having paid for a ticket, you sit back and place your bets on whodunnit and why.

Beyond those central mysteries, you detect telltale signs of an industry struggling to get back into the groove after a long, unprecedented shutdown. Rockwell and Ronan drive around eerily abandoned London streets, bound for underpopulated locations lit and dressed to look like sets even when they're not. Early on, the rhythms feel off: it's still funny, but almost certainly not as funny as a film like this would have been had it been put together in 2019 or 2015 or 2001 (when Robert Altman messed around with Julian Fellowes' script for Gosford Park, this particular subgenre's recent gold standard). It appears tentative, hesitant and spaced out where the pre-Covid Knives Out could be carefree and taut simultaneously: a TV director making his feature debut with a script rushed into production to fill a gap on a slate, a pencil sketch of a series that could run and run in the event that audiences take to it. (My guess is we're still a good six months away from movies starting to look and feel like they used to look and feel; I can well understand why cinemagoers continue to stay away.) Still, to George's credit, See How They Run improves as it goes along, settling down with a mid-movie setpiece that re-imagines the Ambassadors' backstage area as an Escher-like matrix of doors and staircases, while also confirming how invested we are in the very promising Rockwell-Ronan dynamic. And it assumes distinctively British shape in the final act, set in Agatha Christie's own drawing room, which pulls yet another This Country alumnus back into play and ends with cups of tea all round, one of which happens to be laced with arsenic. (Call it English roulette.) Not the knockout everyone was hoping, but not bad: if nothing else, it's the film that allows Saoirse Ronan to shout "stop in the name of the law". Franchises have been built on far less charming gestures.

See How They Run is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

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