Enigma
review by Paula Nechak, 3 May 2002

Inside the cinema's constant fascination with the old and new and the retelling of history is a long-standing temptation: parallel a love story against the vast chaos of uncertainty. Heard it before? You bet. From Waterloo Bridge to The English Patient; The French Lieutenant's Woman and in Neil LaBute's upcoming adaptation of A.S. Byatt's novel, Possession, the past collides perfectly, passionately and with dusky abandon against the future.

In the books the above films were based upon, the trading back-and-forth of spatial relations to serve the purpose of the story's dramatic end, works beautifully because of the liberating and intricate luxury of length. In the more condensed medium of film, the challenge is formidable and requires a flurry of detail and deftness, but especially a smooth hand.

Enigma, the historical movie produced by Mick Jagger and Lorne Michaels, is based upon the dense 1995 novel by Robert Harris and, while it chronicles a tense, intriguing era in Britain's war-torn annals, is as murky and spotty a piece of work as its title. The hit-and-miss director Michael Apted, who shone in his documentary series beginning with 7 Up and then made banalities like Blink, has tackled this romantic espionage thriller starring Dougray Scott, Kate Winslet, Jeremy Northam and Saffron Burrows, with a heavy hand. While his cast is stellar, his film's plotting and continuity sorely lacks.

Surprisingly Enigma has been adapted for the screen by the wordsmith playwright Tom Stoppard, whose script for "Shakespeare in Love" was breathtakingly smart. But here his translation feels labored and forced and never quite pulls us inside the hearts and minds of its central character. It suggests his motivation, pain and longing instead of making us palpate and vibrate with the danger and immediacy that surrounds and ultimately propels him into the choices he makes.

Scott plays Tom Jericho, a brilliant mathematician turned cryptologist who is returning - after a nervous breakdown - to "Station X," a covert code-breaking operation nestled deep inside Bletchley Park. Here Britain's most formidable minds have converged in a single mission - defeat the Nazi U Boat forces and crack the code with which they communicate to the German High Command. The task is especially daunting and urgent because the enemy has changed the code, a fleet of Allied merchant ships carrying 10,000 passengers are in the vicinity, and Jericho, still tender and oozing over his abandonment by lover Claire Romilly (Burrows), suspects a spy midst the British ranks.

More, Jericho is pursued by a member of the secret service, an imperious and omnipresent officer named Wigram (Northam). With emotional and strategic walls closing in around him, Tom has no choice but to appeal to Hester Wallace (Winslet), a bookish, bright Bletchley worker who was roommates with the missing Claire. The pair embark on an intrigue that takes them beyond the predictability of war's tragedy and deep into a heart of darkness and betrayal.

Enigma is a mystery that holds little surprise for all its twists and turns. While Winslet lends a Nancy Drew alertness and intelligence to Hester, we can't fathom her reasoning. She weeps for Claire, played with jaded, playful creepiness by Burrows, at one point, flashing back to an earlier encounter that verges on a flirtation. Are they lovers? For Claire, with her worldly knowing and willfulness, is licentious and able to seduce with a wink and Hester in her girlish purity and dedication to the cause, is vulnerable - and able to obtain proprietary information.

With all these extraordinary puzzle pieces and characters Enigma as a whole doesn't gel and form the bigger historical picture. Its male characters are less formed and interesting than its women and It's indecipherable in parts, clunkily edited and chunkily pieced together. It's a strangely unsophisticated effort and that previously alluded to agility, required in a movie that purports to pit such a breadth of information against a palette of disparate personalities, the illogic of war and the consequence of desperate acts, fails to completely hold and enthrall. Enigma is a textbook movie instead, missing in thrills and weighted with too much pouting and ponderous self-pity. It's a missed opportunity that, for its plusses in Winslet and Burrows, escapes cracking the code on what was its own grander potential.

Directed by:
Michael Apted

Starring:
Dougray Scott
Kate Winslet
Jeremy Northam
Saffron Burrows
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Tom Hollander
Corin Redgrave
Matthew MacFadyen
Robert Pugh
Donald Sumpter
Richard Leaf
Ian Felce
Bohdan Poraj
Paul Rattray
Richard Katz
Tom Fisher
Nicholas Rowe
Angus MacInnes
Mary MacLeod
Michael Troughton
Edward Hardwicke
Anne-Marie Duff
Tim Bentinck
Rosie Thomson
Emma Buckley
Mirijam De Rooij
Adrian Preater
Edward Woodall
Hywel Simons
Emma Davies
Martin Glyn Murray

Written by:
Robert Harris
Tom Stoppard

Rated:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires parent
or adult guardian.

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