American student Martin (Elijah Wood) has arrived in Oxford to continue his learning, specifically to study under a brilliant professor, Arthur Seldom (John Hurt). To this end he has arranged to lodge at the house of an elderly companion to Seldom, Mrs Eagleton (Anna Massey), whose late husband was great friends with the lecturer, in the hope that she will introduce them and he may find out more about what Seldom terms the absolute truth. The older man is sure there is no such thing, but Martin believes it can be found in mathematics, but when their paths cross...
...it's murder! Or is it? It's easy to get lost in the miles of talk in The Oxford Murders, most of it leaning towards the academic, or at least that is the impression the filmmakers would like to give. Sold as an Inspector Morse style mystery, some were disappointed that it didn't so much tax their minds as strain their credulity, but for all its letdowns, there was a pretty decent puzzle being set up at its heart. It's just that the solution didn't have much to do with the Wittgenstein that was made out to be an essential part of the proceedings, so if you were expecting a stimulating discourse, then it's no wonder you were unsatisfied.
If, on the other hand, you wanted an edge of the seat, fingernail-chewing thriller, the director Álex de la Iglesia didn't quite have a handle on that either. Those more used to his over the top works might have been wondering where the Álex of old had gone, and it's true there are only a handful of instances that seem to be from the hand of the idiosyncratic Spanish talent: cameoing director Alex Cox as a professor scribbling a code with his remaining limb after a self-lobotomy, or even Wood eating spaghetti off the chest of his co-star Leonor Watling.
It does begin with one murder, and the victim is Mrs Eagleton who is found smothered and sporting a broken nose in her front room. She was actually dying of cancer, so who could possibly have wanted to kill her when she was not long for this world anyway? That part is not too difficult to work out, but there is a measure of obfuscation going on which clouds the waters of truth, a state which Seldom is insistent on being pretty impenetrable already. As for Martin, he may have ended up with the professor's guidance, which we feel is as much a mental exercise for the tutor as anything else, but his life is complicated by two women.
The first is Eagleton's daughter Beth (Julie Cox), who may be unstable in her pursuit of Martin, and the other is nurse Lorna (Watling), who appears the much better bet, but may be unwilling to follow him in his endeavours to seek out that truth. Yes, that truth again, and it's interesting to see a film which illustrates, or tries to, the problems with finding a solution to a murder mystery when each layer you peel away provides more confusion. When more bodies start piling up, all apparently the work of a serial killer, Martin doesn't realise he has been drawn into an intellectual conceit, along with a very real example of how one, innocent little thing can trigger off unexpected consequences, but finally you're not wholly convinced by Seldom's monologue at the end which sorts everything out and leaves his pupil ashen-faced, wondering if he really knows anything at all. Music by Roque Banos.