Sunday, October 23, 2022

A review of See How They Run

It's going to be hard to write this post without spoilers for See How They Run and even The Mousetrap, but I'll make sure I give fair warning of any that occur. 

It's fair, though, to say that the identity of the murderer in The Mousetrap is only a secret if you want it to be: you have only to read the play’s Wikipedia entry to discover it. There are at least two full performances of the play on YouTube and you can find the complete script online too. You can even hear Tom Holland blurting out the killer's identity in a recent, and otherwise excellent, The Rest is History podcast on Agatha Christie.

Anyway, I went to see the film See How They Run a couple of weeks ago. It concerns a murder behind the scenes of Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap in the early 1950s and mixes real and fictional characters. It pays homage to and parodies the murder mysteries of the golden age, and has ambitions to do more that I’m not convinced it fulfils. It made me laugh, but it also worried me.

Some of the reviews were too enthusiastic, particularly those that praised the "chemistry" between Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan. Because in this film Rockwell is the most inert substance ever discovered: he barely reacts to Ronan for most of the film.

But then there is not much reaction between any of the characters at all, which is in part a function of the usual pattern of detective fiction, where the suspects are questioned in turn and in private by the detective.

The best performance is Ronan’s as WPC Stalker, but as Tina Kakadelis says:

Ronan’s comedic timing is impeccable, but instead of leaning into that, the film tends to make Stalker’s optimism the butt of the joke. It’s a decision that feels lazy in terms of cultivating comedy.

Elsewhere in the cast, we are told that Reece Shearsmith’s John Woolf is an interesting character, but less often shown it, while Harris Dickinson and Pearl Chanda could win a contest for being the pair of actors as little like Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim as possible.

And here come the spoilers…

Just as in The Mousetrap, the catalyst of the murder (in fact murders, as we’re doing spoilers) in See How They Run is someone seeking revenge for the death through cruel treatment of a child. As readers will be aware by now, Agatha Christie was led to this idea by the death of the foster child Dennis O’Neill at a farm in Shropshire in 1945.

Christie changed things around a little, making the younger rather the elder brother the victim and adding a sister to expand the number of possible suspects. When the murderer is revealed, they are treated with kindness.

Not so in See How They Run. Over to Gregory Mysogland:

The party is … locked inside and held at gunpoint by Dennis (Charlie Cooper), an usher from the theatre the play is being performed at. Dennis’ full name is revealed to be Dennis Corrigan, one of two brothers’ whose tragic story of childhood abuse served as the inspiration for The Mousetrap. In reality, the boys’ last name was O’Neill and the one named Dennis is the one who died young, while his brother Terence survived. 

See How They Run's Dennis has always been outraged by the success of The Mousetrap, which he feels exploits his brother's death. He killed Leo and Mervyn to stop the film adaptation from going forward and hopes that killing Christie and the house guests will get the play shut down.

The reveal of Dennis as the killer makes sense given the film's meta-commentary but the legitimate question it raises isn't given the consideration it deserves. The film puts some effort into criticizing how the entertainment industry exploits real tragedies, but not nearly enough. …

At Christie's, the group pretends to understand Dennis’ frustration and tries to console him, but they only do so to save themselves from him. Christie expresses sympathy for him but states that to not write about tragic topics would be to deny a part of who she is. This is an understandable viewpoint, but it's also the last word the film says on the issue, and as such is much too simplistic and one-sided. ...

Eventually, Christie herself kills Dennis by hitting him in the head with a shovel, comically going in for more blows before the others stop her. Although Henderson's manic performance is good enough to make this scene darkly funny on first viewing, upon reflection, it adds to the exploitation of the O'Neill's represented by Dennis' role. 

Making the character a murderous villain and then dismissing his legitimate argument with a wave of the hand is bad enough, but having him meet a violent death similar to the real Dennis's is cruel and immoral, not to mention completely against the ideas the film tries to bring up in relation to him.

Nothing further, m'lud.

I suppose the defence might point out that there is something inherently funny about a butler being killed in a whodunnit, and that any dig at Julian Fellowes is to be applauded.

No comments: