2001, R, 117 min. Directed by Michael Apted. Starring Dougray Scott, Kate Winslet, Saffron Burrows, Jeremy Northam, Tom Hollander, Robert Pugh.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 10, 2002
Jonathan Mostow's recent U-boat battle film U-571 was a mediocre popcorn picture that seemed -- for all the authentic Nazi regalia and scowling sea dogs, blustery sea wash, and, uh, Jon Bon Jovi -- a purely postmodern creature with precious little to it other than a scowly Bill Paxton and, well, that Bon Jovi fellow. So let's be thankful for Michael Apted's fine Enigma, which tackles, all in one film, the German U-boat fleet of WWII, the United States' cross-Atlantic shipping convoys which provided desperately needed aid to a battered Britain, and the legendary code-breakers of Bletchley Park, and then tosses in a pleasingly bizarre love story to top it off. This is, then, the thinking man's U-571, and a film whose suspenseful twists and turns are as difficult to plot as the courses of those invisible German submarines. The aforementioned Bletchley, where Enigma is set, was the Brits' codebreaking headquarters during WWII, and a place so secret it's very existence wasn't revealed to the outside world until the mid-Seventies. There, a dotty band of mental misfits and jittery geniuses worked to break the German codes, knowing full well that the garbled nonsense the Wrens intercepted for them could mean the difference between life and death for hundreds, possibly thousands, of Allied troops across the scattered battlefronts. By the early stages of the Blitz, the Nazi cryptographers had created a machine known as Enigma, which allowed them to change their encoded troop movements and other information daily, and scatter the messages within 150 million million million possible codes. Apted's film takes this satisfying background and wraps it up in a love story, although whether it's a love between a man and a woman or between a man and the arcane world of mathematical probabilities is open to debate. Scott plays Tom Jericho, the codebreaker's codebreaker, and a man whose been driven off his rails by his barely requited love for Burrows' gamine Claire Rommiley, a sexpot Bletchley employee whose earthy blond charms are so maddening to Jericho that he literally offers to tell her Bletchley's secrets if only she'll return his calls. When Claire goes missing along with a batch of highly sensitive communiqués, MI6 intelligence sends the nattily nasty agent Wigram (Northam, apparently born to wear a fedora and topcoat) to keep and eye on the unstable Jericho. Claire's mousy flatmate Hester (Winslet, hiding behind some godawful black-framed spectacles, but none the worse for it in the long run) teams up with Jericho, eager to prove herself in Bletchley's hyper-masculine milieu, while the various code nerds struggle to crack a code that could have devastating effects on the Allied convoys. There's an unmistakable hint of Hitchcock in Apted's film (much of it comes from Tom Stoppard's script, itself adapted from the novel by Robert Harris); there are traitorous fugitives on cross-country trains, vintage automobile chases, rural plotting, and a tortured hero perpetually on the verge of collapse. Apted's direction is crisp and terribly British, as well, and while the various flashbacks and plot machinations make for an occasionally confusing tale, it's done with such a wonderfully dry style and wit that you don't mind having to stop to catch up now and again.