See How They Run

In 1950s London, Angela Christie’s Mousetrap has just completed its one hundredth performance.  American director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody) is in town ostensibly to hash out a screenplay with Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), but the two cannot agree on how to turn the stage production into a movie.  At the afterparty, Köpernick hits on the lead actress (Pearl Chanda), implying that she can get the lead role in his movie for…favors.  This naturally upsets her lead actor and husband (Harris Dickinson).  After a fight, Köpernick is attacked and killed backstage.  Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) and Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) are put on the case, and together they unravel just how many people had a reason to kill Köpernick.  It’s a classic whodunnit, but like Christie’s stories, the murderer may surprise you.

See How They Run is a character-driven piece first and a mystery second.  Rockwell delivers another one of his fully-invested performances as Stoppard, complete with an English accent, drunken demeanor and slight limp from his days in the war.  Ronan is a delight as Stalker, a go-getter intent on learning the ropes from her erstwhile mentor.  As she readily admits, she talks too much and jumps to conclusions, but she’s also very funny.  The two make an interesting pair, one that I’d like to see again.  If you like period pieces, Agatha Christie, mysteries and colorful acting, this movie is for you.  Charming and clever with a few surprises up its sleeve, Run is the perfect movie for your cuppa and a bickie evening.  Recommended.

Synopsis

London.  West End.  1953.  During the after-party celebrating the hundredth performance of Mousetrap, skeezeball director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody) upsets lead actor Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) by hitting on his lead actress and wife Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda).  After a brief yet messy fight, Leo heads backstage in search of a change of clothes.  Alone, he is confronted by a tall person wearing a felt hat and overcoat.  Leo manages to fight his assailant off, but his escape is foiled by a prop door.  The assailant clubs Leo over the head with a heavy statue and leaves undetected.

Later that evening, Leo’s corpse (with a dumbfounded look on its face) is found resting on a couch on the stage.  Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) arrives and orders the building be sealed off and all members of the production be held for questioning.  Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) arrives shortly afterwards, annoyed at being forced out into the pouring rain.  Stalker is chatty and full of enthusiasm, which immediately puts her at odds with the pensive and reserved Inspector.  Stoppard has a look around the crime scene, eyes the cast and crew and–to Stalker’s surprise, sends everyone home.  Based on experience, Stoppard knows that the killer won’t reveal him or herself that night, and everyone can be questioned due course, in daylight.

Over the next several days, Stoppard and Stalker learn that Leo was slated to direct the film adaptation of the play.  During his short stay in London Leo managed to upset nearly everyone involved with the stage production.  As mentioned earlier, the lead actor and actress hated Leo for obvious reasons and are obvious suspects.  He was also at loggerheads with screenwriter Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo) over how best to translate Agatha Christie’s very familiar whodunnit narrative into a screenplay.  Mervyn wanted to retain the play’s stagey pacing, while Leo pushed for changes that embraced the visual nature of film.  In the meantime, Leo was blackmailing the film’s producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith) over his affair with assistant Anne (Pippa Bennett-Warner).  Edana Romney (Sian Clifford), Woolf’s wife, was not pleased to learn of her husband’s infidelity and might have been inclined to take her anger out on Leo.

The sizable and eclectic menagerie of suspects also includes Christie’s agent Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson) was key to selling the film rights to Woolf, but insisted on a clause that prohibited the movie from filming until after the play had been closed for six months.  If Leo’s death closed the play indefinitely, then Woolf could start production and Spencer could reap her fee on the deal.  Additional suspects include Dennis (Charlie Cooper) the usher at the theater who Leo treated like dirt, and Gio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) Mervyn’s boyfriend who witnessed Leo’s abusive behavior.  So, whodunnit?  I’m not a big fan of mysteries, but I immediately whittled down the suspects to two of the above characters who seemed conspicuously on the periphery.  (I find Roger Ebert’s “The Law of Economy of Characters” to be particularly useful in situations like these.)

In the third act, Stalker comes to the conclusion that Stoppard murdered Leo.  Wannabe inspector that she is, Stalker deduces that Stoppard’s barroom confession of his wife’s infidelity is linked to a loose end in the case.  A homely woman and her child visited Leo at his hotel room.  Stalker puts two and two together and believes she’s solved the case.  Unfortunately, the woman who visited Leo is not Stoppard’s wife.  Shaken out of his self pity, Stoppard pieces together clues and discovers who the murder is.  I can’t say that the butler did it, but the butler “buys it”, if you know what I mean.  The final confrontation between Stoppard and the murderer neatly shows how Leo actually knew a thing or two about directing after all.

Analysis

See How The Run (or Run, for short) will appeal to people who enjoy one, or maybe even several of the following signature characteristics of the movie:

  • A period piece set in London
  • Agatha Christie nostalgia
  • A mystery to be solved
  • A playful yet fully invested performance by Sam Rockwell
  • A delightful performance by Saoirse Ronan

As I mentioned above, the mystery at the heart of the story isn’t much of a mystery.  I was able to suss it out without much difficulty.  That leads me to believe that the primary intent of Run was to be charming and entertaining.  On those counts, it definitely succeeds.  

Run has a lot to like about it.  It features several fun performances, excellent production values and direction that keeps things moving along at an engaging clip.  Like most murder mysteries, the movie has a tone that sets it apart from the average comedy or a drama.  The movie has an understated yet sly sense of humor, and I found myself laughing several times at the offhand wordplay between the actors.  Even though the story involves a murder, the murder itself isn’t taken very seriously.  Leo, who handles narration from beyond the grave, comes across as particularly dumbfounded that he was killed by someone who isn’t as smart as he was.  

Even though I enjoyed Run, the movie comes off as ephemeral.  Slight would also be an appropriate designation, but that seems too harsh.  Run entertained me from beginning to end, but it rarely surprised me.  If I were to accuse the movie of anything, it would be that it rarely exceeds its modest ambitions.  To be clear, I appreciated how Run respectfully went about its business more than the blunderbuss approach Branagh applied to Christie’s Death on the Nile.  Murder mysteries can be overcooked to the point where they teeter off into camp.  While I can still enjoy a camp-fest for what it is, I’d much rather appreciate a respectable movie like Run.

There were several times during the movie when I wished it would take the opportunity to dig deeper.  Several plot points are introduced, only to be quickly forgotten.  Why is Stoppard staying up at night making jigsaw puzzles?  What is Stalker’s home life like with two young children?  Why was Leo blacklisted?  Why is Leo portrayed as both a lech and someone who knows how to direct movies?  If I had to guess, the filmmakers avoided exploring these elements of the story in favor of keeping the proceedings light and fun.  That may be, but given how the movie is only 1:38 long, I would have appreciated another ten minutes of backstory or behind the scenes material.

Unlike classic murder mysteries, where the eccentric characters are wholly in service to the mystery, Run takes the opposite approach by keeping the mystery in the background and instead focusing on the characters involved.  That’s not to say that solving Leo’s murder is inconsequential.  The way that the person behind the murder was connected to the backstory of the Mousetrap play was clever.  However, I believe that Run is much more interested in character studies than the mystery at hand.

I enjoyed Rockwell’s performance as a functioning drunk.  I suspect he took this part because it would be a lark, a chance to lose himself in a part where he gets to do some intricate work while appropriating an English accent.  In the movies I’ve seen him in, Rockwell strikes me as an actor who is always fully engaged with the material, no matter what that material is about.  He always does something special, even when the movie really doesn’t deserve it.  As Stoppard, he isn’t as wacky or glib as he has been in other roles.  Instead, he gives the character a lingering sadness that affects his behavior but hasn’t destroyed him.  There were times when I thought Rockwell should let loose a bit more, but as the movie progressed and his character flaws were explained, I understood what he was doing and respected it.

For me, the big revelation in Run is that Ronan can do comedy, and quite well.  She’s been a terrific actress for years, and she’s had funny moments in movies before this one.  In Run, however, she often is required to deliver punchlines, and she nailed every one of them.  That impressed me, given how she spends almost all of her time on screen acting opposite Rockwell, who can make me laugh with a raised eyebrow.  (Several of the funniest moments in the movie are when Stoppard gives Stalker his “would you stop” look.)  People reading this are probably thinking to themselves, “Wasn’t Lady Bird a comedy?”  It was, but the comedy in that movie was much broader and louder than what she does in Run.  The comedy in this movie isn’t built on eccentric behavior or physicality.  The laughs she earns here are predicated on much subtler aspects of her character’s behavior, like eagerness, inquisitiveness, dedication and so forth.  So yes, Run isn’t the first movie to reveal Ronan as a comedic actress.  It is the first one I’ve seen that reveals her as being able to do what I would call English comedy.

In addition to giving Ronan the opportunity to explore her light comedic touch, Run also lets her portray a mother, albeit in a very limited sense.  In real life she’s only twenty-eight year-old, so I was a little dubious that she had two boys already.  Given that the war had ended eight years before the movie began, she would at least have had her children starting at nineteen.  Aside from that incongruity, I was struck by how cute Ronan is in the movie.  Not only does she get to deliver many of the film’s best lines, she also gets to say them in her natural Irish accent while wearing an inspector’s uniform.  I guess I finally understand why Paul McCartney wrote a song about a meter maid.

As Leo, the victim and the narrator, Adrien Brody also appeared to be having fun with his part.  I have no idea why his blacklisted director sounds like he just stepped outta Brooklyn.  (I have not Googled to find out if he was channeling an actual director.)  I’m guessing he asked if he could do an accent and the filmmakers said yes.  I find it odd that he’s essentially transformed into a character actor twenty years after his Best Actor win for The Pianist.  Always better to be working than not, I suppose.

Oyelowo’s flamboyant performance as Mervyn was another pleasant surprise.  Based on the few other performances I’ve seen from him, I had pegged him as an actor who gravitated towards serious roles.  Here he is playing a gay screenwriter, and having a gas doing it.  The other actors named above give solid performances in purely functional roles, except for Ruth Wilson.  Her performance as Petual Spencer was flat and uninspired.  Wilson was so electric on Showtime’s The Affair that I’m disappointed by anything less.  Maybe that series was lightning in a bottle and brought out a side of her that–based on reports of how the experience wore on her, she’s unwilling to show again.  I hope not.

Last but not least is Shirley Henderson as Agatha Christie.  You may remember Henderson’s turn as Moaning Myrtle in two of the Harry Potter movies.  She arrives at the very end of the movie and gives another hilarious performance in just a few minutes of screen time.  I wished the movie hadn’t kept her until the very end.

In his feature film debut, director Tom George keeps the story moving steadily with a pace that falls somewhere between casual and brisk.  He indulges in a few moments of visual panache, particularly in the third act which including a dream sequence. For the most part he wisely maintains the spotlight on the actors.  He does an excellent job capturing the atmosphere of London in 1953, and at times the production reminded me of the best of Masterpiece Theater.  All of the settings looked appropriately authentic and lived in.  

Like the production itself, the screenplay, co-written by George and Mark Chappell is intelligent without being showy.  In addition to the mystery plot line, the movie also speaks to a love of movies and movie-making.  Leo’s narration was a nice callback to Sunset Blvd.  I couldn’t help but smile at how Leo’s description of a good climactic scene was used as the actual climactic scene of the movie itself.  Like any good director, Leo knows that it doesn’t matter if a movie is constructed with cliches like flashbacks.  What matters is that the movie is engrossing.  Cliches are cliches because they work, after all.

I was surprised that Run earned a PG-13 rating.  There is some blood and some sexual innuendo, but the movie probably should have been rated PG.  I honestly don’t remember a single swear word being uttered.  The movie could be aired on network television without a single cut.  In other words, if you’re worried about watching the movie with your ten year-old, don’t be.

Before seeing the movie, I couldn’t get “Lady Madonna” by The Beatles out of my head.  I know that the film’s title is intended as an association between “Three Blind Mice” and Mousetrap, but that just seems lazy to me.  I kept expecting to hear John, Paul and George crooning the chorus on the soundtrack, even though it would have been fifteen years too early chronologically.  In any event, I managed to get two Beatles references into this review, which is a first for me.  Cheers!

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