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The play that goes wrong, the film that goes right

In London in 1952, two 70-year reigns began, both of which went far longer than expected. It was the year that Queen Elizabeth II, who passed away last month at the age of 96, ascended to the throne (she was crowned in 1953). As Britain’s longest-serving monarch, she was a paragon of stability. Despite her youth, no one could have known how long she would have occupied the role and certainly not how fully she would embody the monarchy, given the tumult she inherited.  

The same year, Agatha Christie’s murder mystery play “The Mousetrap” began its run on London’s West End. The now historically popular play—the longest-running on the West End—is still entertaining theatergoers, only pausing in that 70-year stretch due to the COVID lockdown. When Hollywood inevitably swooped in to adapt “The Mousetrap” to screen, there was a provision in the contract that stipulated that no film production could start until six months after the theater run had finished. Despite Christie’s fame, no one could have known how fully audiences would embrace the play. 

The unexpected success of “The Mousetrap” is at the center of “See How They Run,” itself a murder mystery, which takes place during the early production of the play. Tragedy strikes during a party marking the 100th performance, in the form of a very Christie-like murder. The victim is Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody), the film director assigned to adapt “The Mousetrap” to the silver screen. His sardonic narration leads the overture to the film, and while his caustic Yankee schtick does seem to make him, by his own declaration, the most “unlikeable character” (and hence, the one who is customarily bumped off in the whodunit), it’s hard not to feel sorry for him: he rails against the London elite, argues with the snobbish playwright (David Oyelowo) writing the film’s screenplay, and loses a fight with the dashing male lead of the play (Harris Dickinson), all in the first few minutes. He’s displeased with having to make the film in the first place—the only reason he’s not in Hollywood is that he was blacklisted—and seems to have a low opinion of the genre as a whole: “It’s a whodunit,” he says, “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all.” 

But he’s wrong there. “See How They Run” seems to provide emphatic further proof that murder mysteries are making an impressive comeback in modern movies. It is at once a wittily woven whodunit, a delightful period piece escape, and a finely acted ensemble piece. Most importantly, it’s a unique whodunit, dexterously avoiding the tedium of category expectations through a defiant doubling-down on genre self-awareness. “See How They Run” takes the idea that reflexivity about genre tropes is de rigueur for a whodunit and, well, runs with it. To be clear, “See How They Run” does not match the heights set in this department by the brilliant “Gosford Park” (2001), nor does its script merit the charges of criminal cleverness which could be pressed on “Knives Out” (2019), the vanguard film of this new whodunit frenzy. 

Nevertheless, its relentless self-referentiality is one of its greatest strengths. This is best illustrated by a flashback scene in which Kopernick presents a series of storyboards to his producer and screenwriter in an attempt to persuade them that the film’s end should involve a dramatic gunfight and a wry “pan left to the dead butler.” Aghast, the playwright exclaims that Kopernick seems to believe dénouement is French for shootout, to which he retorts: “the audience only remembers the last twenty minutes, anyway.” Touché. But the only reason the last 20 minutes of “See How They Run,” which involve a sequence practically straight out of Kopernick’s storyboards, would be the most memorable is because of how they are set up by this earlier scene. Kopernick’s wrong again, and it’s still for the best. 

To the extent that “See How They Run” successfully subverts the conventions of its genre, it does so through this wry and winking self-awareness. But to the extent that it succeeds as a movie—irrespective of its genre—it does so through tonally matching the exuberant spirit of its female protagonist, a constable played by Saoirse Ronan. Although I found Sam Rockwell’s Stoppard—the ennui-burdened professional detective—to be an engaging, familiar presence, he was practically a sideshow compared to Saoirse Ronan’s Inspector Stalker. An enthusiastic constable striving to pass her sergeant’s exams, Stalker is over the moon to be assigned to the investigation of Kopernick’s murder alongside Stoppard. But we learn that her enthusiasm, much like Queen Elizabeth’s steadiness, is a small miracle—she lost her husband in the war, and we get glimpses of her home life, in which she is raising two young kids. And as with Elizabeth, knowing about her shouldered burdens makes her all the more endearing. She initially begins in awe of Stoppard and writes down everything he says, including such banalities as “don’t jump to conclusions.” But after seeing his lack of interest in the case (and greater interest in local pubs), he becomes a fallen idol. She then becomes more intrepid in her own pursuit to solve the case, and while the ultimate untying is a team effort, and the journey is far from smooth sailing, Stalker’s ardent love for public service, put simply, is inspiring. When we see her passing her sergeant’s exams with flying colors at the film’s end, we know that this is the start of something special. And again, as with Elizabeth, we only don’t know how special. 

Viewing “See How They Run” as a period piece—which it is, and a marvelously well-crafted one at that—allows us to contemplate the extraordinary longevity of these British institutions: the monarchy and the theater. Stalker’s exuberance contrasts with Elizabeth’s self-restraint; her choice of her job is quite different from Elizabeth’s obligation to take up the mantle, and, of course, Stalker is Irish, not English. But there is clearly a bit of young Queen Elizabeth to be seen in her. There’s a line in the movie in which the police commissioner refers to how well women served in the war (in response to Stoppard’s protest at having accompaniment on the case). We might be reminded that Queen Elizabeth drove a truck in World War II and was the last living head of state to serve in the conflict. Maybe seeing Saoirse Ronan behind the wheel of a car, racing to the countryside manor to save the day, recalls that for us. 

 In this moment in which we reflect on the passing of an era, it is perhaps fitting to journey, however peripherally, to its beginning. After all, “The Mousetrap” originated as a radio play commissioned for the royal family. It’s still going strong on the West End and, despite the queen’s passing, the monarchy, too, keeps going. Whether in a palace or on stage, we are still seeing British life run. 

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