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Enigma   B

Manhattan Pictures International

Year Released: 2001 (USA: 2002)
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Apted
Writer: Tom Stoppard (based on the novel by Robert Harris)
Cast: Kate Winslet, Dougray Scott, Jeremy Northam, Saffron Burrows, Nikolaj Coster Waldau, Tom Hollander, Corin Redgrave.

Review by Rob Vaux

Somewhere in the heart of Enigma is a great movie that can't get out. It struggles amid tangles of English sleuthing, wartime espionage and wispy femme fatales, sidestepping tart dialogue and BBC historicism. You spot it every now and then, only to watch it fade and vanish beneath the hum. Pity. Written by the inhumanly clever Tom Stoppard (from a well-received novel by Robert Harris), directed by the reliable Michael Apted, and starring the immaculate Kate Winslet, it's hardly possible for Enigma to go too far wrong. It's a bit disappointing that it only manages to be decent instead of dead brilliant.

The title holds several layers of meaning, but most directly refers to a German coding machine, which the Nazis used to communicate with their U-boats at sea. British Intelligence got ahold of one and used it as the basis of their code-breaking operations, but as the film opens, the Germans have switched gears. They have a new machine in use, and a new code that has the Brits confounded. With an Allied shipping fleet leaving New York and the wolves waiting in the North Atlantic, Intel summons its best man, Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott), from exile to have a crack at the puzzle.

Jericho, however, has more on his mind than just stopping U-boats. He originally left Intel's Bletchley Park headquarters following a nervous breakdown -- caused not by the stress of work, but by one Claire Romilly (Safforn Burrows), who neatly cut his heart out and served it up for lunch. He returns hoping to see Claire again, only to learn that she has recently vanished, after intercepting a mysterious series of German codes. Though the Allies have only four days before the Germans take the fleet, he's determined to learn his ex-lover's fate. He enlists the aid of her mousy roommate Hester (Winslet) -- the sort of pluck-in-her-garters girl that Agatha Christie would envy -- to help unravel the mystery of her disappearance.

The complex story weaves its way between various elements with mixed success. Like most films of this type, it pays close attention to historical details, presenting Bletchley and its environs with the greatest of care. The code-breaker subplot fits these sensibilities well, and Apted finds a comfortable groove with the intricacies involved in solving the German puzzle. It takes a nice twist when Jericho realizes that allowing the fleet to sink may actually help them defeat the code, bringing moral complexity to the otherwise straight-laced wartime heroics. And while Scott's performance never remains more than adequate, Winslet is terrific in amateur sleuth mode: Nancy Drew with a cuter accent. She's shown a lot of daring with her post-Titanic career, and Enigma marks another strong entry in her repertoire. She gets strong help from Burrows, whose sultry blonde haunts every frame, and gives the title a suitable multitude of meanings.

Would that Enigma contented itself with these assets. A full 100 minutes of this would have been something to behold. But it falters along the way, meandering into areas it really has no business going. The mental chess match eventually gives way to more Hollywood-oriented fare, as pursuit of Burrows' ephemeral paramour leads to car chases, gunfights, and other standard-issue spy clichés. The sturm und drang provides a nice fulcrum for one of the film's best characters -- a smug, clever spy (Jeremy Northam) who crosses swords with Jericho -- but stumbles badly with a lot of half-assed would-be action scenes. Sequences of Jericho chasing trains, racing down docks, and engaging in fisticuffs with the bad guys just don't match with the earnest, thoughtful tone of the rest of the film. Apted tried the same mixture helming the last Bond film, with similar results. That effort needed more exuberance; this one could do with a little less.

Of course such silliness never trumps Enigma's strengths. Instead, it merely causes an irritating distraction, a buzzing gnat at an otherwise agreeable picnic. Helped by Stoppard's clever dialogue, we eventually forget the weaker elements, but they never entirely fade. They linger long after they should, putting a sour edge on what could have been one of the year's better films. Oh well. "Victory is all that matters," as Bletchley Park would say, and Enigma achieves one despite its errant wanderings. Too bad they couldn't stick to their guns more often.

Review published 04.29.2002.

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