.Agatha’s Attic: Nifty whodunit ‘See How They Run’ pays tribute to Agatha Christie

Relaxed and witty, See How They Run is an ideal non-anxiety-producing piece of popcorn entertainment for the busy autumn season, a reminder that there’s nothing quite like a detective story—a farcical one at that—to blast the hackles off its more pretentious multiplex-mates, with the mention of a single name: Agatha Christie. And then adding on three A-list players to do the job: Saoirse Ronan, Sam Rockwell and Adrien Brody. 

Together with an apt cast of character actors, they tell the tale of a backstage murder at London’s Ambassadors Theatre during the run of Christie’s hit play, The Mousetrap, which as the action opens is celebrating its 100th performance, in 1953. No shortage of suspects.

Everyone who interacts with world-weary Hollywood filmmaker Leo Köpernick (Brody) immediately hates him, if not for the sin of wanting to update Christie’s work, then for his snide wisecracks about her style (“The limeys just lap it up”). Seems the loud-mouthed interloper was killed with a prop snow ski, and now there’s a mysterious masked intruder on the loose.

Police Inspector Stoppard (Rockwell) and Constable Stalker (Ronan) are called in to sort through the suspects, including a conceited actor (Harris Dickinson), a fey playwright (David Oyelowo), the playwright’s “nephew” (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), another Hollywood producer, with a jealous wife and a sexy assistant (Reece Shearsmith, Sian Clifford and Pippa Bennett-Warner), an archaeologist, a theater usher and the inevitable butler. Whodunit? With dialogue like this and high-caliber personalities like these, who cares? 

Ronan steals the movie with ease, despite being matched up with showoff Rockwell. Keep an eye on the star-struck Constable Stalker’s reaction shots and double takes, not to mention her full-on Hibernian accent. Stalker puts in more than her share of traditional police legwork on the case, but always bucks up against “female prejudice.” 

We don’t often think of Ronan as a comedian, but even in the midst of the general over-acting derby, with Oyelowo, Ruth Wilson, Tim Key and Shirley Henderson (impersonating Christie herself) vigorously bobbing for apples whenever Rockwell isn’t in shot, the Irishperson owns every scene she’s in. Lotsa slapstick and amusingly over-dramatic musical cues, courtesy of composer Daniel Pemberton. 

Rockwell takes a stab at a British accent, but his heart obviously isn’t in it. The humorously alcoholic Scotland Yard investigator makes do with malapropisms (“I got shot in the Italian Alps”) and numerous sight gags. Aside from Ronan and Rockwell, the most prominent hamming is by Oyelowo’s Mervyn Cocker-Norris (a P.G. Wodehouse-worthy name), flouncing around in his bachelor pad. 

The British team of writer Mark Chappell and director Tom George obviously spent considerable time rummaging in Dame Agatha’s attic. Christie (1890-1976), whose website credits her as the world’s all-time best-selling author, did not in fact write the source material for See How They Run. Chappell and George named their movie after a successful farce of the same title—but with a completely different plot—that has been staged in numerous revivals and rewrites since 1944. 

Chappell and George’s fun and games extend to the characters’ names. Dickie Attenborough is a nod to actor Sir Richard Attenborough, who starred in the original run of The Mousetrap. Rockwell’s Inspector Stoppard’s handle name-checks playwright Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). The archaeologist Max Mallowan (played by Lucian Msamati), owner of the country house in Berkshire where the matter gets solved, is named after Christie’s globe-trotting second husband. 

See How They Run, a light and lively combination of Murder on the Orient Express peekaboo and Wes Anderson-style whimsy—the split screens, the gadgets, the literate laugh lines—is worlds better than Knives Out. It’s what Mank could have been. A delight, from its incessant flashbacks to the rat poison in the tea cup. And yes, The Mousetrap, the world’s longest-running play, now in its 70th year, is still playing at St. Martin’s Theatre in London’s West End. 

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In theaters

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