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ENIGMA(director: Michael Apted; screewritter: Tom Stoppard/based on the novel by Robert Harris; cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey; editor: Rick Shaine; music by John Barry; cast: Dougray Scott (Tom Jericho), Kate Winslet (Hester Wallace), Jeremy Northam (Wigram), Saffron Burrows (Claire Romilly), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Puck), Tom Hollander (Logie), Corin Redgrave (Admiral Trowbridge), Matthew McFadyen (Cave), Robert Pugh (Leonard Skynner), Richard Leaf (Baxter); Runtime: 117; Manhattan Pictures International; 2001-UK/USA/Germany)
“This romantic thriller is steeped in the atmosphere of wartime England, and ably captures the speech patterns, moral codes and ideals of the 1940s.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Michael Apted (Gorillas In The Mist/Nel/7 Up documentary series), the veteran director, and Tom Stoppard, the witty screenwriter, fail to give their smartly done blend of fact and fiction thriller, Enigma, based on the bestseller novel by Robert Harris, any sense of urgency or excitement but do create a tasteful, well-crafted, amusing, Michael Powell-like British wartime film. Somehow their main story played second fiddle to the intricate but bland love subplot, which took away from how good a film this could have been if it just told the straight Enigma tale. After all, breaking the code was considered of paramount importance by both the Brits and their allies; and, somehow or other, Apted should have made this part of the story more prime time and tense. But despite its sometimes confusing plotline, its unclear way of cutting back and forth between past and present, and many other unclear moments that needed one of the characters to think aloud for the viewer to know what was happening, the film is nevertheless grandiose and sparkles with an abundance of characters who are intelligent, quirky, and earnest geniuses and misfits.

The already complicated film is made doubly confusing because of its romantic espionage enigma built into the story that takes away time from the telling of the Nazis’ “Shark Enigma machine,” from whence the film got its title.

Yet this literate film was much fun and provided an incisive portrait of a brilliant young mathematician (based on Alan Turing, the real mathematician codebreaker) whose romantic passions clash with his passion for code-breaking. This romantic thriller is steeped in the atmosphere of wartime England, and ably captures the speech patterns, moral codes and ideals of the 1940s. The familiar type of old-fashioned story (only one nude scene to bring it into the modern world) revolves around the attempt to break the Nazi code before German U-boats can attack a convoy of Allied supply ships.

The movie is set in 1943 in Bletchley Park, an elegant old country estate 60 miles north of London, where the British setup a top-secret code-breaking compound consisting of the best minds in Britain who gathered there to crack the German code. That place wasn’t even acknowledged as existing until thirty years after the war.

Cambridge mathematician Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott), the master codebreaker who broke the German code, had a nervous breakdown that required a leave of absence after a slender, ghostlike, blonde, goddess of beauty, Claire Romilly (Saffron Burrows), who is a staff member in Bletchley had left him after a month of seeing him. She has been missing for the last 14 hours and didn’t report to work, and what arouses suspicion that she might be a traitor is that the Germans suddenly changed the code machine they thought to be impenetrable. Jericho is requested back because the Royal Navy needs him to re-decipher the German code he broke before, as there’s a perilous blackout over the Atlantic. The codebreakers have only as much as a few days before the Nazis will sink the largest convoy sent so far, consisting of American and ally supply ships and at least 10,000 passengers. Jericho returns to his battle station unshaven, despondent, pissed off at the world, and having flashbacks for his only love Claire (we get to know her through flashbacks, though she always remains a mystery because she is so thinly painted).

Jericho is detested by the bureaucratic head of the codebreaker department, a foul man named Skynner (Pugh). Though, he has no trouble fitting in with his oddball fellow codebreakers, who are made up of a stutterer, a Stalinist (Leaf), a Polish patriot (Coster-Waldau), an aesthete, and sundry other eccentrics and crossword puzzle enthusiasts. They all like the intellectual challenge of their work and love to piss on their self-important superiors.

You would think this Enigma challenge would be enough to keep Jericho fully occupied, but that’s not the case. Jericho has Claire on his brain and can hardly think of anything else but wonder what happened to her. Jericho meets Claire’s roommate and co- worker at Bletchley Hall, Hester Wallace (Kate Winslet), who teams up with him to play amateur sleuths tracking down the whereabouts of Claire and what she may have been up to. Kate got herself to look dowdy for the part, as she donned a pair of nerdy eyeglasses, wore baggy clothes, and looked fat. But one could easily see through that disguise, and just by taking off her glases she looks yummy again.

A contemptuous spy-catcher, Wigram (Jeremy Northam), who is disdainful of the intellectually gifted Jericho for being the star of the war instead of a jet fighter or a rugged macho personality like himself patriotically working as an intelligence officer, roughly questions him about his love relationship and suspects there’s a mole among the cryptographers — and that he suspects both Claire and him of spying for the Germans. But, without any proof he must let him go. This familiar meanie role is played by Northam tongue-in-cheek and requires him to be stylishly garbed in impeccable suits and a fedora, as he acts with a merry brusqueness and with a droll humor, and who for some strange reason has his unimportant part become the most noteworthy and charismatic one in the film. That honor should have gone to Dougray Scott, but his genius and romantic qualities and daredevil spirit never were able to shine in his performance. The man is still searching for his character’s character, though he did give a likable performance and did what he had to do without fault. My gripe was that it wasn’t a memorable star’s performance and this thriller needed some more old-fashioned thrills in it — maybe the spark someone like a Cary Grant type could provide. Apted is no Hitchcock, and though he’s a competent director he can’t sustain a mystery story. His strength seems to be in keeping things on an even keel and running smoothly. His idea of a plot device for a potboiler is to bring something out of the blue, and make that the secret surprise ingredient the pic hinges on. This is unfair to the viewer, who never suspected or should have that such a development would just materialize without a forewarning. Therefore a prewar massacre of Polish military officers by Stalin’s army at a place called Katyn (the Russians only admitted this some 40 years after the war), which comes without warning, becomes an essential part of the Enigma mystery. If that wasn’t enough of a twist, the film for its conclusion somehow ends up being staged in a remote coastal village in Scotland.

The film was too cluttered with enigmas. Yet for all my misgivings — I still had a good time watching such a fuddy-duddy work slither along.

It is worth noting that this film might be taken for a companion piece to Hollywood’s action spectacle U-571. That film presented a fictionalized account of how the Enigma decryption device was captured (with Americans taking the place of the British). The factual part of Enigma states it was the British who secured the Enigma (which is probably true), though the Poles still claim they were the ones. I doubt if this film version of Enigma will clear up that matter, clarity wasn’t one of Enigma’s plusses. But if it’s elegant entertainment you’re looking for, this will do. There’s a great story to be had on this subject, but that’s for another filmmaker down the road to tackle.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”