There's been a whodunit revival in the air in movie theaters in recent years, particularly in the realm of complex, twisty Agatha Christie-style mysteries — including screen takes on such stories concocted by the masterful author herself as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, as well as inspired by her style (see Rian Johnson's Knives Out and its upcoming sequel Glass Onion.)
Now, the new film See How They Run takes a slightly more askew look at the Christie-esque thriller, with a uniquely direct reference to her output and a farcical, slyly funny — and decidedly meta — commentary on the making of mystery-centric stage plays and movies themselves.
The story is set in Postwar London of the mid-1950s, when the West End theater district was flourishing — a fact perhaps best exemplified by the legendary smash success of The Mousetrap, the real-world murder mystery play penned by Christie that would ultimately become (and still remains) the longest-running play in London's stage history. The Mousetrap figures prominently in See How They Run, as fictional director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody), a cynical Hollywood pariah, seeks to revive his filmmaking career by adapting the play into a movie, narrating all the while in the tarnished-knight prose style of Raymond Chandler.
Amid knowing winks and nods to the evergreen tradition of maneuvering, politicking, and unbridled ambition that percolates within high-profile creative endeavors, an unexpected actual homicide in the theater rattles the production, bringing in a charismatically mismatched detective duo: Stoppard, Sam Rockwell's rumpled, world-weary Scotland Yard investigator with a taste for booze and an eye for telling details, and Stalker, Saoirse Ronan's plucky, enthusiastic and often oversharing police constable. Together they sniff out a sordid collection of suspects drawing from theatrical/Hollywood archetypes and a few real theater-world stalwarts (including Mousetrap actor Richard Attenborough and even Christie herself), all set on the backdrop of lavishly detailed period landscapes that include grimy back alleys and the sumptuous Savoy Hotel.
"It was clear from the first time I read Mark [Chappell]'s script that there was obviously this meta layer, so that could bring a richness to the film as a whole — in a visual sense that there are side gags," director Tom George tells Metacritic. "But what Mark and I agreed on from the very start was that can only be the icing on the cake, that stuff; you've got to build the core elements first. For both Mark and I, it always comes back to story, character and comedy. And I think to be honest, that's what attracted me most: that really it's a character comedy underneath the whodunit. It's really the story of this partnership and these two detectives and whether they can come together to crack case."
Here George talks to Metacritic about working with Rockwell and Ronan, stepping back in time to 1950s theater, and whether there was a learning curve coming from a comedy background to a crime tale.
Since See How They Run's success hinges on the story of the detectives' partnership, as you alluded to, tell me about collaborating with Sam and Saoirse to build the characters out further.
It was just amazing working with Sam and Saoirse. I think what they have in common is they're two really grounded, lovely, warm people who were excited about the script from the start and very quickly understood tonally where this should sit. In a way, the world is a bit of a trap, I always thought, for actors because as soon as you have theatrical setting — the West End of London — [and some actors] are playing real-life actors and these big personalities within this world, that can be a dangerous cocktail. Everything [could become] too theatrical, too played with a wink and a nudge.
I was clear that, in terms of the performance aesthetic, there should be a contemporary comic style that pulled against that more traditional period setting, and Sam and Saoirse got that from the [start]. That's where their instincts naturally went, and they got on brilliantly off camera, and then seeing that develop on camera, it's why there are so many two shots in the film — because it was just so good watching them side by side, both performing with and reacting to each other.
The story is rooted in the theatrical traditions of the West End and in fusing the farce elements and the whodunit elements. Tell me about taking something that has all the stage tradition and making it cinematic.
I think there are two masters that in this film that you need to obey: one is the thriller master and one is the comic master. And we talked about balancing those two elements, but both rely on pace for different reasons. The thriller, I think, needs to feel like it's racheting up. Particularly once you hit that midpoint, or that final act, you need to feel like you're in the spiral and things are coming faster than you can — or crucially than the characters can — keep up with them. That took some finding in the edit to get that right.
We had a fair amount of excess material that didn't make it into the final movie for precisely that reason. Once you hit certain key story points, you need to be going; there can be no pausing for thought. By that point at the same time, comically, much of the piece's rhythm is driven by pace and that smart comic writing.
But for me, I always love to have those shifts in gear, comically. So, you have quick rhythm scenes, but then maybe a long ending, which is more in the awkward comic style, or more contemplative, or sits with the characters and lets the moment breathe for a moment. For me, that's always the most satisfying watch — when you go fast or slow, rather than just sticking in one gear throughout. And as you said, there are farce elements, occasional physical elements of comedy in this as well. That's something I'm always drawn to — finding the jokes in different places, in different ways, rather than finding one way and honing it and repeating it. It's just more satisfying for me because I think it keeps the audience on the toes a little bit.
And there is also the physical world building of the theater world, as well as 1950s London in general, in the film. What elements of that felt like a period piece dream?
What got me excited about the period world was the chance to do it in a way that we hadn't seen it before, particularly in British films. So often that period of Postwar London in the late '40s, early '50s is done in that sepia-tinted style — that nostalgic gaze where everything's a little drab, down at hill, but plucky. And I think for me, the gift was this world of London's West End — the world of the theater where I think life in that period would've rushed back in a way that it hadn't in other parts of the city and the country at large. And so, because so much of the script is rooted in this tension between it being a period piece but with a modern aesthetic to it, it felt like a chance to take that and hopefully create an authentic period world.
We filmed an awful lot of location work. And so, it was fabulous to be in some of those iconic London locations, like the Old Vic [Theatre] and the Dominion Theatre on Tottenham Court Road, the Savoy hotel. [A] writer might write "Savoy hotel," but usually you don't go to the Savoy hotel to film it, but we were able to do that.
So, that was amazing. But walking onto the set of Mervyn's [David Oyelowo] apartment, which just felt like it encapsulated his character so perfectly and really captured that what I thought was a key element to the film at the very earliest stages, which was, you've got these two quite monochromatic police characters — Saoirse in her PC uniform, Sam and his detective outfit — and they're in this vibrant world completely out of their depth and seeing them on that set was just reaching story and instantly quite funny.
Your comic sensibility is pretty well established by your prior work, were you also steeped in the whodunit genre or was there a learning curve on set?
I think we — as in the English or British people — [have it] in the collective consciousness. It might seem like the whodunit moon waxes and wanes in the wider world; here it's pretty constant. Throughout my childhood years, me and my brother would sit down [and] watch Agatha Christie every Saturday night, so it's in there, I think, in quite a deep way.
The elements that are in play, I suppose, are comparable in some ways to certain types of horror film: There's a framework and almost a sequence of key scenes that the audience expects. That's part of the fun of it. But the challenge then is, how do you present it in a fresh way, when every plot twist that is possible has already been done by someone?