Murder Most Mathematical
The Oxford Murders Spain/UK/France 2008
Directed by Álex de la Iglesia
Contender Films Region 2
The Oxford Murders, based on a Spanish novel I’ve not read yet by Guillermo Martínez and directed by Álex de la Iglesia, is one of those rare cases where a film with little or no advertising or pre-release hype and practically no exposure in cinemas comes out of the blue and stuns you and grips you and amazes you with the absolute genius of the sum of all its parts... those parts being brilliant camera work combined with astonishing editing, fantastic performances (including some surprising cameos), amazing scripting, fascinating dialogue, haunting music and, all in all, just a general mastery of the art of the cinematic form that you wonder, when it’s over, what just hit you.
I never got the opportunity to see this at the cinema when it was initially released. I think it was only out for about a week and I remember (or maybe that should be don’t remember) there being pretty much no warning of the film other than an accidentally heard half of a radio appearance by John Hurt to bring it to my attention. I wanted to go see it but I just didn’t have a chance at the times it was showing on its limited run.
But then, a month or so later, a guy at work gave me a copy of it on DVD-R which he’d downloaded from the internet (and as per usual with such things these days, the bootleg was in the proper aspect ratio and was a crystal clear transfer). Since I wasn’t going to ever pay out for a copy of this movie without having actually seen it first, I saw no harm in accepting and watching the film in question. I’m glad I did, obviously, and have now finally gotten around to purchasing a proper DVD copy of the movie so I could rewatch this brilliant gem in an even better transfer (debatable) and pay the movie makers back for their tasty celluloid confection.
I should probably point out the irony here that, since I would never have bothered to watch this movie after I’d missed it at the cinema if a pirate hadn’t fallen into my hands, then I would never have got around to putting money into the coffers of the people who made the movie. Um... so without a pirate being available, the movie company would not be making any money off me on that product. Hmm... I’m not a big fan of pirates and this was an exception as I usually prefer to wait for the official DVD release if I like a movie (although I will happily pay out money for a dodgy copy of something that is either banned or quite old but not been made available by a film company, since that’s probably the only way I’ll get to see a particular movie in my lifetime, in some cases) but I have to say that my experience of people who watch pirate copies in general is that the movie companies are really not losing any money on these things... since these people seem to be unwilling to pay out to see these things at the cinema or on proper DVD anyway, from what I can see. So in a way, pirate copies are a way of distributing a movie to a bigger audience with a fairly minimal loss (I expect) to the rights owners.
Anyway, I’m not getting into that argument here because, as I say, I would rarely buy a pirate unless it’s somethng that a company has withheld from release because they think there’s not enough profit in it... and thankfully they’re catching up now with their mega-expensive-but-at-least-it’s-now-available archive editions, which will hopefully kill off some of the opportunities for bootlegs over the next few years... although what happens when downloads take over is anybody’s guess.
Right... lost the plot a bit there, didn’t I?
The Oxford Murders is set in the present day, in Oxford (yeah, even in the Spanish source story it’s all set in Oxford... kinda curious) but it grabs you even from the start which plunges you straight into the trenches of the First World War. One lone man is writing in a notebook right in the middle of the conflict with explosions landing around him while his fellow soldiers look on from their point of, relative, safety. John Hurt’s narrative then takes over to explain just who this great mathematician/philosopher was and why what he was writing was so important that he couldn’t wait to scrabble to safety before getting it down. We then cut to present day and a lecture by John Hurt’s character which is telling this tale to a spellbound audience. We then flash just a little back in time to meet the other main male lead, played by Elijah Wood, before catching up to this lecture again where Wood trys to get Hurt’s attention.
I really don't want to say much about the details of the plot but the murders soon start and these murders appear to be based on a series of logically progressing symbols as our two main leads attempt to help the police with their enquiries (cue bumbling Police Inspector stereotype) where everyone is a suspect and a twisty, turny road towards an end game (of a kind) which you may at some point see coming... but I bet the movie turns you away from the final solution before it arrives there. There’s a fake ending on this movie where everything appears to be solved and tidied up but then... well if you’re going to watch this movie, make sure you stay right until the final scene set in the Victoria and Albert Museum is all I’m saying!
It’s a strange film as the camera work, sometimes static, sometimes on the move and often cutting between various different styles of shots really shouldn't work too well... but it so does. This film manages to sucker you in even when the combinations of shots, when you think about them after, probably shouldn’t really work together as well as they seem to.
The acting in this movie is really strong and that’s really not surprising since some great talents are at work in this one... and this coupled with some really delightful and quirky scenes makes for great entertainment. For instance, the sex-on-legs being known as actress Leonor Watling plays Frodo’s... er... I mean Elijah’s love interest in this picture... and seriously she is practically scorching in this movie. I can’t believe anyone can be this consistently sexy in scene after scene... and her introduction in a squash match where Elijah’s character has marked up the court mathematically so he knows exactly where the ball will be returning to depending on the angle it hits the wall at is both quirky and astonishingly alluring (wow... I’m getting astonished by this movie quite a lot aren’t I?). And Leonor’s introduction in this scene is like an application of deep heat to the loins in the area of arousing ones interests to a considerable acting talent (she was amazing in My Life Without Me, which by the way is another great cinematic triumph of recent cinema history) but here she just rocks!
And then we have Dominique Pinon who most people will recognise from his frequent appearances in practically all, that I can remember, of Jeunet’s movies (Delicatessan, Cty of Lost Children, Alien Resurrection, Amelie, A Very Long Engagement, Mic Macs etc) playing a bit of a warped character who may or may not be the killer (you really need to wait for that last lilttle end coda to find out the depths or lack of people’s culpability) and, as usual, he commands the few scenes he’s in.
And then you have the wonderful director Alex Cox playing a man driven completely mad by the abstraction of mathematical thought, drilling a hole in his own head and watching his body lose limb after limb to a degenerative disease... it’s really quite something to see, the little vignette where John Hurt's voice over provides us with the story of this character. And fans of Torchwood’s Owen Harper will appreciate Burn Gorman’s turn as a similarly demented Russian student who may, or may not, also be a prime suspect in the series of murders.
And then you have the musical score by Roque Baños (I finally managed to track down a CD copy from Spain in the end as it does seem to be a tricky one to get ahold of for some reason... which is a crime in itself). A prominent Spanish composer you may remember from his very Hermmanesque score for The Machinist, he further cements his reputation as being an excellent mimic (in the best sense) of Bernard Herrmann’s scores for the films of Alfred Hitchcock with a similarly stunning score which really evokes and gifts the movie with a retro, haunting atmosphere which will leave you in no doubt of the genius of this composers work... he even gets uncredited appearances as the conductor of a local Oxford orchestra at a few key places in the film.
So there you have it... an absolutely stunning ride, this one, which I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone who is into the art of cinema and has a love and passion of movies in general. You owe yourself to seek this one out... it’s really quite extraordinary.