The Oxford Murders

The Oxford Murders (DVD Cover)

Cast: Martin (Elijah Wood), Arthur Seldom (John Hurt), Lorna (Leonor Watling), Beth (Julie Cox), Inspector Peterson (Jim Carter)

Director: Alex de la Iglesia

Theatrical release: 01/18/2008 (Spain), 08/08/2010 (US)
DVD Date: 10/05/2010

Rating: R
Running Time: 108 minutes

Note(s): The screenplay was adapted from the novel The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez.

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The Oxford Murders

Review: Several years ago, I reviewed The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez, an intellectual mystery that I found to be "reminiscent of a Sherlock Holmes pastiche in both character and style." Published originally in Spanish in 2003, an English language translation was published in 2005, and a film adaptation was announced soon thereafter. And though the film was released in Spain in 2008, it sort of disappeared, only to reappear with a very limited theatrical release here in the US earlier this year. The film on DVD and Blu-ray disc came out this week, and as I enjoyed the book, I was eager to see the film treatment.

I'm pleased to say upfront that, for the most part, it is a successful and enjoyable adaptation. Elijah Wood stars as a graduate student from Arizona (Argentina in the book), who is attending Oxford University with the expectation of studying under the theoretical mathematician Arthur Seldom (John Hurt). But soon after his arrival, Mrs. Eagleton, his landlady -- a former member of the British group that deciphered German codes during World War II -- is murdered, the killer taunting that it is just the first in a series. The police engage Seldom, and by extension Martin, to assist them with solving the crime, and identify the killer before another victim is found.

The Oxford Murders admittedly starts very slowly. Elijah Wood initially seems hopelessly miscast as Martin, though his performance -- and credibility -- improves as the film progresses. John Hurt, however, is superb as Seldom. There are other characters, of course, but they play secondary roles to these two.

The plot basically involves a sequence of symbols that are related to a series of murders, the expectation being if, by solving the next in the sequence, one can predict the next victim. But there are other seemingly puzzling elements to the crimes as well, such as the fact that all the victims -- including Mrs. Eagleton -- were terminally ill; why kill someone who was about to die anyway? Is this a matter of a murder that is disguised to be something else ... an imperceptible murder? (Which, incidentally, is the original title of the book in Spanish, Crimenes imperceptibles.) Seldom says at one point, "The perfect crime is not one which remains unsolved but one which is solved with the wrong culprit."

The film really hits its stride about midway through, and turns into a compelling whodunit. It's a little unfortunate that the first half is so slow, spending far too much time on Martin's relationships with two young women and too little time on developing the foundation required to solve the murders.

The DVD viewing experience is marred -- significantly -- by a soundtrack that, when present, drowns out much of the dialog. When not much of interest is being discussed, there is no background music. But when something important or suspenseful is about to happen, the music overwhelms. I found it difficult at times to understand what some of the characters were saying. (While there are Spanish subtitles, there are no English subtitles and the film is not closed captioned.)

Still, despite the poorly balanced sound, I enjoyed The Oxford Murders, and recommend both the film and the book. As to the latter, "The mathematical discussions, and the historical comparisons between mathematics and magic, are fascinating and are likely to intrigue readers who may not think they have an interest in either. The murders, and their symbolic links, are also deceptively appealing." [Mysterious Reviews: The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez.]


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