There is a promising idea behind “See How They Run,” a whodunit set in London’s West End in 1953 against the backdrop of Agatha Christie’s long-running stage hit “The Mousetrap,” but it proves far too complicated to execute for director Tom George and writer Mark Chappell, who resort to clumsy flashbacks and pointless split-screen sequences without ever finding the right tone for their movie.
“See How They Run” starts out with narration by crass movie director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody), who has been hired to direct a film of “The Mousetrap” after the play has closed out its run. Köpernick gets into a fight at a party with the cast of the play and winds up murdered backstage at the theater; his corpse is propped up on a couch on stage, and the murderer has pulled out his tongue.
Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) sets about solving the case with the help of novice cop Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan), an enthusiastic movie fan who likes to write down everything pertaining to the murder. The suspects include the playwright and screenwriter Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), theater impresario Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson) and even a young Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson), the star of “The Mousetrap.”
Some of the characters here are based on real people, like Attenborough and John Woolf, and some are fictional, like Cocker-Norris and Spencer, and even Agatha Christie herself gets introduced as a character toward the end. That’s in addition to several new characters who are introduced at a party at Winterbrook House, which Christie made her home for many years, and so scenes start to feel pointlessly crowded.
The energy level in “See How They Run” is very low, and it feels as if the actors are afraid of interacting with each other. Rockwell underplays to such an extent that in some scenes he seems to be asleep behind his eyes, and Ronan seems to need some more encouragement to go a bit bigger with her character, which might have helped enliven the whole leaden enterprise. Ronan has a Redgrave-family-like romantic intensity, but a lot of her best scenes in “Lady Bird” were comic, and surely she could have been funny here if she had gotten some more support.
When Ronan’s Stalker quotes from the recently released “The African Queen,” she doesn’t bother to imitate Katharine Hepburn’s voice as she says, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above,” but when Stalker quotes a bit from the movie “Brighton Rock,” Ronan does an entertainingly accurate imitation of Attenborough’s voice, even though an audience is far more likely to be familiar with Hepburn than with Attenborough as an actor. This is the sort of bit that might have made for an effective running gag for Ronan, but it gets muffled through lack of focus or follow-through.
“See How They Run” presents a semifictional world and aims to salute both the whodunit genre and Christie and Attenborough, who was a gifted actor before he turned to direction of prestige pictures like “Gandhi.” There is also a reference to the murderer John Christie, a man whom Attenborough later played in the movie “10 Rillington Place.” The name of Rockwell’s Inspector is an allusion to playwright Tom Stoppard, who wrote a parody of “The Mousetrap” in the late 1960s called “The Real Inspector Hound.”
All these references begin to weigh down this movie, which also seeks to get laughs while paying tribute to mysteries while also, in turn, setting up its own mystery, one that reflects directly on Christie’s source material for “The Mousetrap.” That would be a very tall order to fulfill for any director and writer, but the overly ambitious George and Chappell are unable to animate even the most basic pleasures we might get from all these elements.
“See How They Run” lies as dead on the screen as the corpse of its murdered movie director.
“See How They Run” opens Friday, Sept. 16, in U.S. theaters.