- The Washington Times - Friday, May 3, 2002

''Enigma" alludes to the World War II coding machines used by the Third Reich and effectively outsmarted by British code breakers concentrated several thousand strong in a sprawling complex of temporary buildings on a country estate called Bletchley Park, about 40 miles from London.

The movie was directed by Michael Apted from a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, and it boasts some reputable promise. It deploys Jeremy Northam and Kate Winslet in ways that take you by surprise.

The catch is that they never quite replace the central character, who proves conspicuously expendable as embodied by Dougray Scott, the code breaker the cat dragged in. "Enigma" derives from a 1995 suspense novel by the English author Robert Harris, who kept things very intriguing until he had to resolve the prevailing mystery, a definite letdown. In its fidelity, the movie suffers a similar deflation. The storytelling priorities of "Enigma" are out of whack.

The time frame is March 1943. Mr. Scott's woebegone hero, Tom Jericho, has returned to duty after insufficient recuperation from nervous exhaustion. His intuitions once were instrumental in devising a scheme to crack an Enigma naval code.

Gloom has descended on Bletchley Park's Hut 8, which specializes in German naval activities. The "crib" that served the team so well is no longer effective. The Germans have altered their transmissions in a way that demands a new breakthrough, preferably before three convoys en route from New York to the British Isles sail within range of patrolling U-boats.

The dilemma looms as a humbler and stunner. On one hand are the convoys bound for mortal peril. On the other are the Hut 8 brainiacs trying to come up with a new crib. All you need are some folks in the convoys with whom to identify, contrasted with the Hut 8 watch, physically safe from danger but keenly aware of their obligations to people whose lives they could save.

Can't miss, you would think. Well, it can, because "Enigma," as novel and movie, never really gets around to paying calls on anyone in the convoys. That's a bit thoughtless, when you consider that the movie is far-reaching enough to observe a German unit excavating grave sites on the Eastern front. Mr. Harris' mystery element attempts to link those graves with a disappearance at Bletchley Park.

Tom Jericho's breakdown is attributed in part to romantic misfortune: He has been discarded by a beauty named Claire Romilly (Saffron Burrows). Employed in a Bletchley Park division that collates German cryptograms, she is the missing person.

Suspicions of foul play and possible espionage surround Claire's disappearance. Claire's roommate, Miss Winslet as Hester Wallace, another Bletchley staffer, collaborates with Jericho to locate and possibly vindicate Claire, whose largely phantom and flashback presence is exaggerated as the key to everything.

In short, the storytellers shortchange themselves and the audience when sorting out the characters. It would be much easier to warm to a Hut 8 collective than to Tom Jericho, lovesick basket case.

The filmmakers seem to be working off class resentments on Wigram (Jeremy Northam), an entertaining snob from the Secret Service assigned to conduct the investigation, but is Mr. Northam so much more diverting than the ostensible leading man who can take the movie's prejudices to heart?

I was grateful for Mr. Apted's generous glimpses of Enigma replicas and Bombe replicas, the latter being the large computing machines built to accelerate analysis of the millions upon millions of potential Enigma settings. In fact, the scenic evocation of Bletchley Park and satellite installations is very effective. The process that leads the code breakers to fix on submarine "contact signals" for a new naval crib is also clarified admirably.

"Enigma" has its strong points, but they are at the edges of a plot that sacrifices a sound emotional and historical foundation to bogus apprehension over a shady lady who vanishes.


TITLE: "Enigma"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor, including brief nudity and simulated intercourse; occasional graphic violence, including allusions to wartime atrocities)

CREDITS: Directed by Michael Apted. Screenplay by Tom Stoppard, based on the novel by Robert Harris.

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes


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