The Mousetrap, Agatha Christie’s famous stage murder mystery, has never been filmed. When Christie gave the film rights to producer John Woolf, she stipulated that the film could only be made six months after the play closed in the West End. she never has. Still running 70 years after opening in 1952, The Mousetrap It is the longest running play in history. So the movie never came to be.
That piece of trivia is a plot point in See how they work, a little detective novel game steeped in London theatrical tradition. It’s also the origin story of the movie itself, if you believe short story producer Damian Jones spins the production notes. Jones was considering filming the play, he says, but when he found out that Christie had thwarted him, he saw a way to not only circumvent this obstacle, but turn it to his advantage: He decided to create a fictional whodunit. on the whodunit, and turning the movie rights into one of the cogs in his killing machine.
See how they work, written by Mark Chappell and directed by Tom George, turns Christie inside out and inside out, and laughs at the undignified spectacle that process creates. She lampoons the creaky mechanisms of the genre even as she leans into them. It’s an inside joke of a movie, and a pretty good one, animated by an excellent cast. But George and Chappell are too enamored with their own postmodern intelligence, and don’t care enough to build a mystery as intricate and satisfying as, say, Rian Johnson’s whetstone. knives out.
However, the setup is wonderfully wicked. On the occasion of The MousetrapThe 100th performance of — in the real world, it has already been performed more than 27,500 times — the cast, led by Richard “Dickie” Attenborough (Harris Dickinson), reunites for a party. Film producer Woolf (Reece Shearsmith) is there, along with Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody), a hateful blacklisted Hollywood director Woolf has hired to make the movie of the play. Cocky playwright Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo) is tasked with adapting the script. Theater impresario Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson) simmers on the sidelines. Everyone is a little testy, for various reasons, and Kopernick and Attenborough get into a fist fight. At the end of the night, Kopernick is found dead on stage. Can you continue the show?
Given the history of the production, there is a mischievous game in this premise, and that is before the police show up. Alcoholic and world-weary Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) has been paired with bumbling but jealous new recruit Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) to solve the case. They don’t get any help, because the rest of the assassination squad is focusing on the much darker, real-world murders at Rillington Place. Compared to those, this theatrical assassination is only slightly funny.
The ingenuity and double-sided delicacy of this detail, which underscores the innocuous silliness of the proceedings, while rooting them in a real time and place, is typical of what See how they work offers, and it is one of the main pleasures of the film. It’s more fun to guess which figures are caricatures of real people and which are cartoon inventions than trying to figure out who the killer is.
A couple of cameos late in the film play into this distorted reality for a hilarious and audacious payoff. The production design follows a similar vein, creating a dazzlingly enhanced 1950s London with a strikingly authentic texture. (Producer opportunism strikes again: The film was shot during the COVID-19 pandemic, giving the production access to some of London’s biggest theaters and hotels to film as they were closed due to lockdown. ).
See how they work It works better as an outright comedy than a murder mystery, though it doesn’t quite pull off either. Chappell’s script is packed with tasty barbs, painful puns, and gently teasing characterizations. A seasoned British TV comedy director, George knows how to pull off jokes and pay for them. But he has a hesitant pace, and scenes sometimes drag on too long in a breathless haze between jokes. Comedy, with its reliance on chemistry between the cast, must have been one of the most difficult genres to film under pandemic conditions.
The cast ends with the credit. Ronan, as the charmingly candid Stalker, executes her comedic bits with impeccable timing and laughs a lot without going overboard or breaking character. Stalker’s gullible naïveté starts out as a joke – she takes down everything others say and thinks the case is closed after every interview – but in Ronan’s hands it turns into a kind of endearing heroism.
Contrasting his brilliance with Rockwell’s jaded, mumbling Stoppard is straight out of the buddy-cop playbook, but Rockwell’s amusingly understated turn complements Ronan’s perfectly. Stoppard just lets the shenanigans go on around him with a shrug, and it’s somehow more fun for being such a stoic straight guy.
Dickinson’s version of Attenborough is a rampage, stringing together a certain kind of gentle leading man’s conceit. The supporting cast is a killer row of British television and stage professionals: the likes of Sian Clifford (flea bag), Lucian Msamati (game of Thrones), Tim Key (Alan Partridge’s various projects), and Shirley Henderson (Harry Potter), who can pull off loving but wild characterizations in the space of a couple of lines and make it look easy.
See how they work it is a joke, a self-referential parody of theatrical and cinematographic artifice. The problem is that, like most pranks of this type, it uses self-mockery as an exit clause. There’s a voice-over from Adrien Brody as Kopernick, the late director, disdainfully dismantling the clichés and rudimentary constructions of the afterlife crime novel genre, moments before they appear on screen. His own basic Hollywood instincts are similarly mocked one moment and deployed the next. Having a character point out the flaws in your film doesn’t really excuse them. But it doesn’t invalidate the pleasures of film either. See how they work he’s not as smart as the creators think he is, nor as stupid as he sometimes pretends to be. He doesn’t have much to say about whodunits other than “Wouldn’t it be funny if they existed within his own world?” And yes, it turns out it would be.
See how they work opens in theaters on September 16.