Overlooked Movies No.2
‘The Oxford Murders’ was always going to be a tough sell. A bestselling Spanish murder mystery about mathematics and philosophy set in Oxford, made by a Spanish team headed by Alex de la Iglesias and filmed in a weird kind of English that sounds dubbed and highly awkward – and yet, as a number of critics pointed out, this was just what the traditional murder mystery needed – a kick in the pants that would take it into stranger, darker, and more potentially intellectual territory.
But of course, ‘Morse’ had partially done this first and was a huge success. However, Colin Dexter’s literature-quoting, opera-loving cop was an altogether more polite creation. This time around we have Elijah Wood, whose peculiar eyes make him a perfect epicene hobbit but here strand him in the world of coarse acting, all moody stares, sulks and tantrums, while other cast members, like the usually wonderful but very French mime Dominique Pinon, and film director Alex Cox playing a trepanning psychotic, seem to have wandered in from a Europudding tax dodge.
Mercifully, holding it all together is a superbly relaxed performance from embittered maths professor John Hurt, who has a theory about the mathematical methods of the murderer stalking Oxford’s cloisters. After Anna Massey is found luridly beaten and smothered, Jim Carter’s gruff anti-intellectual cop starts finding clues and red herrings in every murky corner.
And as the academic theories about chance and truth and numbers pile up, the director treats us to the first of several tour-de-force moves – a single long tracking shot through Oxford that unites every member of the cast in a kind of Hadron Collider of a clue that reveals its purpose in the last five minutes.
There are awful moments, too, including a Bad Sex award-contender in which Wood eats spaghetti off his girlfriend’s breasts. But you know that any film featuring a busload of Down’s Syndrome kids getting torched is going to cause trouble, and de la Iglesias has always been a bit of a bad boy.
Still, how refreshing it is to see that in between Hitchcock homages (spiral staircase, an attack during a concert, a body lying on a church floor) there are sequences discussing abstruse ideas that manage to engross, proving that we don’t need action beats every five minutes to keep us hooked. All it takes is a few smart connections. Ultimately the film is a whodunnit dressed up and tricked out with Wittgenstein paradoxes, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the Vesica Piscis, Fermat’s Last Theorem, Tetractys, Pythagorean theory and the Butterfly Effect, with murders and sex and dreaming spires, shot in a wistful drained-colour palette.
Not bad for a film that its distributor couldn’t even be bothered to open theatrically in half its territories.