Dir. Alex de la Iglesia, Spain/UK/France, 2008, 110 mins.
Serving up archaic symbols, sinister cloaked figures, philosophical asides and murder most foul, Alex de la Iglesia's The Oxford Murders promises a heady blend of maths and murder. But despite able direction, an intense, unsettling score and some competent acting, this screen adaptation of the best-selling novel by Argentinian mathematician and writer Guillermo Martinez adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
A surprisingly cerebral departure for the normally visceral de la Iglesia, the picture has been a box-office hit in his native Spain, grossing a healthy $12 million in six weeks. There, de la Iglesia's name is enough to draw crowds, and Spanish critics gave the cult director warm, if not glowing, reviews. Elsewhere, the film will have to stand on its own scant merits. Set for French and UK release (end-March and late April respectively) and being sold internationally by THINKFilm, this will be marketed on the star power of John Hurt and Elijah Wood, coupled with some pretty Oxford locations in a Dan Brown knockoff.
Mid-level success in Latin markets, where the novel has sold well (particularly in Argentina) seems assured, although this somewhat humourless maths talkfest may find it hard to pack a multiplex and ultimately perform best in ancillary, particularly DVD.
Not exactly playing to his Frodo fans, Wood plays Martin, an earnest young American maths whiz who arrives in a picturesque Oxford for a research posting. He's eager for the brilliant but taciturn logician Professor Arthur Seldom (Hurt) to supervise his work but an initial encounter leaves Martin publicly humiliated.
Soon afterwards - and by apparent coincidence - both stumble across the body of the student's murdered landlady. A note and mathematical symbol left by the killer suggest the woman's murder is the first in a series. The mismatched duo quickly realise that the serial killer can only be thwarted if they can crack the next symbol in the sequence. As they go about their business, Seldom lectures Martin and the audience on the basics of logical series, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and Gödel's Incompleteness theorem. Lurking in the background is the murderer and, more worrying for the less mathematically inclined viewer, Wittgenstein's Finite Rule Paradox.
For light relief there's a comical, bumbling British cop (Carter), who seems happy to allow the unlikely pair lead the hunt for the killer; and for Martin's relief, sex, involving spaghetti, with mysterious nurse Lorna (Leonor Watling). Adding to the sexual frisson and list of suspects is the intense Beth (Julie Cox), the murdered landlady's daughter.
After an enjoyable start, and an accomplished tracking shot which introduces the leading players by sweeping through the streets of Oxford, the film begins to slow down under the weight of its shoal of red herrings. Philosophical discourse serves to hinder rather than advance the plot and the audience is left to passively watch as the great minds share their latest deductions. Some characters seem to exist merely to provide us with a list of potential suspects and dialogue is as cold and detached as a mathematic puzzle. Neither de la Iglesia nor scriptwriter Jorge Guerricaechevarria seem to have an ear for English-language dialogue and speech is so stilted it's surprising not to see Google Translator in the end credits.
Hurt is enjoyable as the scornful, puffed-up professor and a wide-eyed, worried-looking Wood conveys a beguiling mix of innocence and obsession. Perhaps de la Iglesia believes this winning combination is enough to instantly arouse the passions of both female leads but the viewer won't. And this is a crucial failing in a film where so much depends on the sexual energy Martin supposedly unleashes.
Ultimately though, despite references to Agatha Christie and Hitchcock, the film fails as a classic whodunnit. De la Iglesia may have ambitiously set out to explore the criminal mind, logic, and the nature of truth, but it all adds up to little more than murder by numbers.
La Fabrique 2
Alex de la Iglesia
based on the novel by Guillermo Martinez.