Based on Guillermo Martinez’s award-winning novel, The Oxford Murders is an unlikely thriller, given its narrative investment in number theory and logical series. And the result, adapted by director Álex de la Iglesia and pitched at a breakneck, didactic clip, absent any sensible, modulated emotional investment in the characters or material, falls flat, accordingly. What wants to be a gumshoe Sherlock Holmes-ian tale with a hearty pinch of The Da Vinci Code‘s symbology never coalesces into anything more than a grating cinematic hybrid exercise, in which convoluted academic deduction enjoys the warmth of esteem and respect despite an increasing gulf between it and simple narrative logic.
The story deposits Martin (Elijah Wood), a young American graduate student, in England, where he’s just arrived at Oxford University, hoping to be a pupil of Arthur Seldom (John Hurt), a prestigious professor of logic and mathematics. When Martin’s elderly, terminally ill landlady is apparently murdered, the police initially focus on her daughter Beth (Julie Cox), but Seldom and Martin have a connection to the woman as well, having discovered the body together, and the former posits that hers is the first in a series of murders linked by strange symbols. Ergo, professor and student join forces to try and crack the code, setting into motion an elaborate game, even as the motivations of the alleged killer remain blurry.
The Oxford Murders goes to considerable lengths to establish and play up a litany of possible suspects, including Beth; a squash-playing nurse, Lorna (Leonor Watling, above), with a romantic connection to both Seldom and Martin; an oddball fellow student of Martin’s, Yuri (Burn Gorman); and the Christian fundamentalist father (Dominique Pinon) of a terminally ill little girl. A shame, then, that the suspense elements never catch fire, since we don’t really come to know any of the victims, and it’s posited early on that those targeted will be already close to death, for labyrinthine reasons related to the chain of symbols, and how the killer wishes to challenge Seldom.
Owing probably to both its novelistic roots and the nature of the material, the film possesses a certain breezy if at times self-satisfied intelligence and ambition, but almost nothing about the manner in which characters meet and interact seems to fit comfortably within the recognizably real world, and so the movie’s entire mystery plot feels like a hammy put-on almost from the get-go. When Martin meets Beth and her mother, huge chunks of expository dialogue are unleashed, and it becomes readily apparent that characters are going to behave in ways that feed (or obscure) a given plot point, rather than comes across as genuine. A couple scenes later, as Martin makes a play to attract Seldom as a thesis advisor, a lecture hall confrontation ensues, with a classroom full of students chuckling, for no other reason than to underline Martin’s humiliation. Later still in the movie, a madcap planned elopement (“to a place with no books, or logic series”) comes off as risible.
Still baby-faced as he approaches 30, Wood doesn’t find a way to convincingly convey Martin’s unhinged obsession with Seldom, which is meant to cast a bit of suspicion on him as well. Instead he just comes across as whiny, without much reasonable cause. Watling puts an assertive spin on a character who as written is a bit of a cipher, and she’s quite attractive to boot, but other characters are occasionally seen reading some of their math-jargon-specific dialogue off of cue cards. A pro’s pro, Hurt provides a bit of mooring, but not enough to give The Oxford Murders any lasting sense of purpose, or impression.
Hours after the conclusion of de la Iglesia’s movie, in fact, the only two moments that linger involve a random bit of colorful dialogue (“One day the Mad Hatter will come out of his closet and ass-fuck the lot of you!”), and Wood eating spaghetti off of Watling’s apron-clad chest. Oh, there were murders in the film, you say? I’d already forgot, I guess. While it’s theatrical release is fairly limited, for those interested, the movie is also available on VOD, Xbox Live, Playstation, Amazon and Vudu. For more information, click here. (Magnolia, R, 109 minutes)