There’s a sub-genre of murder stories called ‘the locked room mystery’, which consists of a dead body being found in a locked room with no obvious way for the killer to escape. This has been investigated by everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie’s various detectives and is the main premise behind the TV series Jonathan Creek. Fermat’s Room presents a novel variant on the genre: a murder is being committed in a locked room, which is shrinking to crush its four inhabitants (played by Lluís Homar, Alejo Sauras, Elena Ballesteros and Santi Millí¡n) to death, and the murderer may be inside.
This makes for a film that is both original and also over-familiar. The idea of characters being crushed to death in a shrinking room has been covered in all kinds of films from Goldfinger to Toys, Indiana Jones and Star Wars while rooms that exist purely as death traps have filled screens in recent years from the Cube trilogy to the endless Saw franchise. Even having a maths genius as the main protagonist occupies the middle ground between the TV series Numb3rs and the tedious Russell Crowe biopic A Beautiful Mind.
However, due to elegant cinematography, an intriguing premise and a good cast and script, Fermat’s Room rises above the ubiquity of its premise to make for an intriguing mystery that unsettles the viewer by combining claustrophobia and the modern fascination with games. There’s been a number of unspeakably awful movies based on computer games, but Fermat’s Room flirts with the medium by using the iconography of ‘brain-training’ games, and features a genuinely gripping and subversive car chase that is reminiscent of one of the early Grand Theft Auto games. The film’s low budget necessitated a small cast and limited number of locations, but as in Richard Linklater’s underrated Tape, creative set design, superlative camera work and intelligent use of the resources mean a lot of enthusiasm and a little money go a long way.
The film, like its characters, is flawed. No one in the film is as interesting as the plot thinks they are, and having everyone operate under a pseudonym distances the characters more than the story necessitates. And, because there’s no real concern for the characters, or their dual identities, this device does occasionally make the film a purely intellectual exercise, like a game of Cluedo.
As a film that lauds genius, the plot treads a double-edged sword. The characters in Fermat’s Room are aided in their escape by their common interest in maths and puzzles but are equally handicapped by their all too human vices. In the same way, the film is likely to attract an audience that has seen other examples of the genre and will probably spend the picture trying to double-guess the plot and spot the references. This kind of obsessive study could ruin enjoyment of the film, even though the story celebrates such activity. It might seem disingenuous to state there’s a lot to be appreciated in a movie that comes across as a more intelligent and family friendly version of Saw, but in this case familiarity doesn’t breed contempt.