Review: Saoirse Ronan’s winning charm wears a ‘See how they run’

Sam Rockwell (left) and Saoirse Ronan in ‘See How They Run’, part of a wave of old-school thrillers. Photo: Parisa Taghizadeh / Searchlight Pictures

Seemingly out of nowhere, there’s been a revival of old-school whodunit, with Kenneth Branagh resurrecting Agatha Christie in two films and Rian Johnson’s fresh take on the genre in his “Knives Out” films.

It’s not the sort of genre one would expect to thrive in modern cinema, where thrills are defined by superhero movies or nihilistic, violent neo-noir and revenge imagery. And yet, “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” received Oscar buzz when it released its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last week (it will open the 45th Mill Valley Film Festival next month before a release in December), and now the long comes “See How They Run”, in which Christie herself features in the plot.

Light-hearted and almost a parody of the genre, “See How They Run” isn’t a very good thriller – its plot is paper-thin – but with its mid-20th-century postcard London setting, classic film references and a sweet, comedic performance winner from Saoirse Ronan, she serves as comfort food for aficionados of the genre.

Pearl Chanda is a British stage star and Adrien Brody a rough Hollywood director in ‘See How They Run’. Photo: Parisa Taghizadeh / Searchlight Pictures

The setting is London’s West End in 1953. Agatha Christie’s play “The Mousetrap” was an unexpected hit and attracted Hollywood interest. At a party celebrating the 100th performance of the play, Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody, recently seen as Pat Riley in “Winning Time” on HBO), the American director hired to make a film adaptation, is found murdered.

Among the dozen suspects are Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo, “Selma”), the screenwriter hired to adapt Christie’s play; matinee idol Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson, “The King’s Man”); and Hollywood producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith). On the case are the world-weary Inspector Stoppard (Daly City native Sam Rockwell) and the impatient, movie-obsessed Constable Stalker (Ronan).

Of course, “The Mousetrap” is really a play that opened in the West End in the early 1950s, and it went on to become the longest-running play in history, with some 28,000 continuous performances until that that it be interrupted by the pandemic (it resumed in May 2021). Attenborough, later Oscar-winning director of “Gandhi” and creator of the dinosaur playground in “Jurassic Park,” was truly a matinee idol who was part of the original cast of “The Mousetrap.” Woolf was a real producer, including of Stalker’s favorite movie, “The African Queen.”

Sam Rockwell (left) and Saoirse Ronan in “See How They Run.” Photo: Parisa Taghizadeh / Searchlight Pictures

All of this is catnip for fans of classic movies and helps distract from the fact that screenwriter Mark Chappell’s mystery is pretty mundane. As a much hated murder victim, Brody is fun to watch; his character is seen in flashbacks, and he even narrates the movie (the British, this rude American observes, “are more uptight now than when the Luftwaffe was over their heads”).

But the real interest of the film lies in the (strictly professional) relationship between Stoppard and Stalker, both putting their lives together in the years following World War II. Stoppard, divorced and wounded in the war, is an alcoholic; Stalker is a war widow raising two children and, still optimistic in a kind of stiff upper lip, turns to police work to improve her situation.

Their jokes are dubious and delightful; Ronan taps into his inner Carole Lombard in a warm and compelling performance where she, in a running gag, “jumps to conclusions.”

Directed by veteran British TV director Tom George, “See How They Run” won’t impress discerning viewers, but acts as a rather pleasant placeholder until the next movie “Knives Out” arrives.

L“See how they work”: Comedy-mystery. With Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody and David Oyelowo. Directed by Tom George. (PG-13. 98 mins.) In Bay Area theaters beginning Friday, Sept. 16.

About Debra D. Johnson

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