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See How They Run review – British whodunnit is a Christmas Eve tradition in the making

Though it's no Knives Out, self-awareness and a fantastic Saoirse Ronan performance keep Tom George's ambitious debut compelling

Not many debut films can conjure up the sort of breathlessly excited previews that Tom George’s See How They Run has enjoyed but, then again, not many debut films promise Saoirse Ronan and Sam Rockwell solving an Agatha Christie-esque murder in a star-studded ‘50s West End setting. It’s hype that is, on balance, mostly deserved, even if the end product does sometimes rely a little bit too heavily on the built-in goodwill that most audiences will have from the opening credits onwards.

In the first of many – maybe too many, in fact – meta touches, the murder itself happens behind the scenes of a production of Christie’s own The Mousetrap – a play that, thanks to a cannily-worded contract, will likely never be made into a film of its own. We’re introduced to the world and its cast via a voiceover from the victim of the central murder, American director Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody), who is in London to try and get the Mousetrap movie made, but is stymied when he’s killed in the costume department, before his corpse is deposited on the theatre’s stage.

Enter Ronan and Rockwell, playing the enthusiastic young Constable Stalker and the hard-bitten Inspector Stoppard respectively, questioning a colourful cast of suspects made up of luvvie creatives and cynical producers. It’s a fun ensemble, from David Oyelowo as prissy screenwriter Mervyn Cocker-Norris (probably the best of a bunch of funny names that the film offers) to Harris Dickinson turning on the posho charm as Richard Attenborough. Even Rockwell’s English accent is generally persuasive, though it can go a bit Jack Sparrow at times.

They are all mostly just silly ciphers, though, and it’s only Ronan who really gets to play a human. Thankfully, she does an incredible job, luminous and adorable as a new copper with decent instincts but far too much nervous enthusiasm. She’s the best part of See How They Run by a mile, grounding it in something real when the script threatens to fly away from any sort of believability.

It’d be hard to overstate just how theatrical George’s writing is – not in its scope, which is admirably broad for a first film, but in all its rhythms and its jokes, which would probably earn a hearty chortle on stage but only a mild chuckle on film. The rat-a-tat pacing keeps you engaged, but there aren’t the sort of big laughs or quotable moments that made, say, Knives Out such a hit. This is partly also down to how self-aware the whole thing is, and the meta moments are very hit-or-miss.

George’s direction is a mixed bag, too. The kitschy ‘50s setting is very fun to immerse yourself in, there are plenty of visual gags that land, and he keeps the tone on its silly/sincere tightrope almost perfectly, but sometimes basic stuff like blocking and editing can go awry, pulling you out of key scenes. Mostly, though, the great cast, especially Ronan, elevate See How They Run above these flaws. It’s not exactly the British answer to Knives Out but it’s certainly a better take on Christie than either of Kenneth Branagh’s recent direct adaptations, and sure to be a Christmas Eve favourite for years to come.

See How They Run is released in UK cinemas on 9 September.

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