See How They Run
The irony of See How They Run is that director Tom George and writer Mark Chappell could have made its woke-garbage content work to the benefit of the period production as a whole, being as it super self-reflexive in all the ways but those that really count. Such as, you know, telling its tale in an attractively self-conscious way rather than as painfully and labouredly as George delivers it.
As it is, this theatre-centred, ’50s-set murder mystery is afflicted with the curious malady also found in the recent Enola Holmes 2 (as one example), whereby women’s struggles to be recognised as equals in a patriarchal society – so drawing on historical record – are counterbalanced by the complete disregard for not entirely dissimilar travails of race. Thus, “overrated playwright” Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo) has evidently been afforded every opportunity that would not have been available to him. Likewise, in the case of the “colour-blind” casting of Lucian Msamati as Max Mallowan, husband to Agatha Christie (Shirley Henderson, doing her standard slightly mousy turn). This is obviously a disingenuous term, as the casting is anything but, entirely fuelled by a desire to avoid accusations that this or that production is “so very white”.
There are, of course, counterarguments to this approach, and on stage, at least, a heightened medium, it has longstanding precedent. One might argue See How They Run in similar terms, as comedy/pastiche and so sidestepping period accuracy. It’s “fictional”. If, as a viewer, verisimilitude is unimportant, then doubtless woke-sense viewing is of negligible concern. I, however, find an arch murder mystery where period is stressed as important to be downright peculiar when it abjectly proceeds to ignore those trappings when the mood fits.
Now, had See How They Run had drawn attention to its presentism – an awkward term perhaps, but nevertheless salient – the way it does the artifice-within-artifice of an investigation surrounding the staging of The Mousetrap, complete with narration decrying the whodunit and second-rate murder mysteries, and how flashbacks are lazy and interrupt the flow of the story as a cue to show exactly that – it might at least have shown self-awareness about its diligent refusal to acknowledge the same. Which, to anyone actually living in the 1950s, would really be very, very silly (and doubtless, if you suggest something along these lines, you’re the one who’s suspect; witness ninny Mark Kermode’s rant regarding Armando Iannucci’s David Copperfield).
While they were at it, a “I thought you’d be shorter” might have addressed the absurd casting of Harris Dickinson as renowned titch Sir Dickie. Had Dickinson’ rendition been otherwise perfect, one might have brushed aside the negligence, but as it is, the whole take is plain baffling (likewise Sir Dickie perceived as a dashing heartthrob? Really?)
Not that this would have saved See How They Run. It’s all a bit feeble. Dependable performances are no match for the strained comedy between Sam Rockwell’s Inspector Stoppard and Saoirse Ronan’s Constable Stalker; he’s a drunk, she’s super-eager (George let her keep her accent as he wasn’t too concerned with realism, apparently. I’d never have guessed). Lines like “Fleet Street will be all over this like jam on a Devonshire scone” (from Commissioner Scott, an underwhelming Tim Key) are representative.
The production is most illustrative, in fact, of how deceptively difficult this kind of farce is to do right; either side of the line, and it’s flat or desperate. See How They Run is definitely the latter. Not helping matters is glibly making the revealed murderer the brother of the “actual” boy who died in the case that inspired The Mousetrap (who is then promptly brained with a shovel). If the joke’s that it’s even more disrespectful than Christie was… well, mission accomplished.
Also real is the referencing of the Rillington Place murders (Attenborough played Christie in the 1971 film). There’s so-so support from Ruth Wilson, Adrien Brody and Reece Shearsmith. Brody’s producer and first victim offers a list of murder-mystery clichés at the outset that effectively identify the killer, but to praise this would be like commending Scream 5. In its favour, See How They Run is short and snappy. Less so is that Daniel Pemberton’s score, while perfectly decent in and of itself, simply adds to the sensation that everything about this comedy is frantically mugging for the camera.