Math and murder combine to time-honored effect in “The Oxford Murders,” a polished but verbose whodunit that’s surprisingly buttoned-down given helmer Alex de la Inglesia’s rep for comicbook wackiness. The decision to play it straight, a la Guillermo Martinez’s original novel, leaves pic looking as solid and old-fashioned as the city of its title. Some auds will enjoy its plentiful, philosophy-lite bantering and games-playing; others may feel it gets in the way of the entertaining if outlandish plot. Spanish B.O. for de la Iglesia’s second stab at an English-language movie has been excellent since Jan. 18 release.
The presence of John Hurt and Elijah Wood as the squabbling professor-student tandem has generated sales in several territories, with more likely to follow.
Arthur Seldom (Hurt) is a high-flying Wittgensteinian who proposes the notion that there’s no way of knowing the truth. American grad student Martin (Wood) arrives in Oxford hoping that Seldom will oversee his thesis. But their first meeting is inauspicious: Martin is publicly humiliated for questioning the prof during a lecture.
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Martin lodges with elderly, ailing Mrs. Eagleton (Anna Massey) and her insecure musician daughter, Beth (Julie Cox), who cares for her. Both Beth and local nurse Lorna (Leonor Watling, whose accent hovers between American and Irish) fall for him.
Following an impressively lengthy tracking shot — one of several look-at-me moments of high craft — Martin bumps into Seldom at the gate of Mrs. Eagleton’s house, and they enter to find the old woman dead. Seldom reveals to the police that he received a note containing a circle and a mathematical message: “The first of the series.”
Several Philosophy 101 debates between Seldom and Martin ensue, the latter claiming the killer will be found if they apply logic, Seldom believing otherwise. When it becomes clear Mrs. Eagleton was going to die anyway, the notion of the perfect murder comes in: Perhaps the killer is trying to show Seldom that there is, after all, a predictable, underlying pattern to things.
The philosophical opponents work together as detectives, with the help of a bluff, mustachioed inspector (Jim Carter), chucked in for comic relief. Beth is the main suspect, but so, too, is Martin’s fellow student, eccentric Russian mathematician Podorov (Burn Gorman). More murders follow, and the final payoff is well done in an Agatha Christie kind of way, if unoriginal.
Turing, Heisenberg and Godel are all name-checked to make the audience feel smart, and the pic smartly raises the question of whether its solution can actually be found. But non-philosophical viewers will be bored by the debates, and philosophical ones will also be bored, as they’re probably familiar with the ideas.
Hurt hams it up enjoyably as the imperious, arrogant but ultimately lonely prof. As Seldom is the only remotely rounded character, Wood struggles for dramatic survival as the one-dimensional, somewhat dull Martin.
De la Iglesia has never attempted conventional romance before, and he fails here. Why Beth and Lorna would hurl themselves at the feet of a worried-looking math student is unclear, and the sight of Frodo sucking spaghetti from Watling’s (much-photographed) cleavage is pretty traumatic.
Pic in general could have benefited from more of the elegant narrative compression and stirring images displayed in two murder sequences. Such setpieces aside, Oxford here is the one of popular imagination — hazily sunny lecture halls, dark, impressive libraries and cluttered lodgings.
Movie buffs will enjoy references to Hitchcock, “Sleuth” and “The Usual Suspects,” among others. Dialogue occasionally sounds poorly translated from Spanish.