Among the Code Crackers Behind Egghead Lines
By A. O. SCOTT
new film, "Enigma," is a densely plotted historical
thriller (based on a novel by Robert Harris) set in Bletchley Park,
the English country estate that was the center of British code-
breaking activities in World War II. Mr. Harris, whose other books
include "Fatherland" and "Archangel," specializes in turning the
great disasters of 20th-century history into revisionist potboilers
full of sex, danger and intriguing, if not always plausible, speculation.
In the movie the cracking of the Germans' Enigma code - a pivotal
event not only in the war but also in the development of modern
computer technology - is linked to Stalin's prewar massacre of the
Polish officer corps in Katyn forest (an atrocity that only came to
light much later), and also, more mundanely, to the romantic agony of
a Cambridge mathematician named Tom Jericho, played by Dougray Scott.
At the start of the picture Tom is returning to Bletchley after a
leave of absence occasioned by a nervous breakdown, the after effects
of which appear to be an aversion to shampoo and shaving cream. The
cause of the crisis was an unhappy love affair with a Bletchley
filing clerk named Claire Romilly (Saffron Burrows), who is shown in
flashbacks (apparently shot through a filter made of honey) cavorting
with the better-shaven, less hangdog Tom and then throwing him over
after he refuses to let her see some math problems he's been working
on. Heartbroken, he follows her over hill and dale, bellowing her name and professing his love until he is sent off to a more restful environment.
Now, however, Claire has, as the British so winningly put it, gone
missing, and Tom must find her, with the help of her dowdy housemate
and co-worker, Hester Wallace (Kate Winslet). Although Ms. Winslet
gamely tries to muffle her sexiness in dowdy clothes and nerdy mannerisms, this Hermione Granger act only succeeds in making her
more crush-worthy than ever, but then again that was probably the idea.
Hester and Jericho's mutual friend Claire, it seems, was involved in
some nefarious business, possibly involving a supercilious intelligence agent named Wigram (Jeremy Northam). In the meantime,
the Germans have changed their code and are about to attack a
flotilla of American ships bringing supplies and material across the
Atlantic, and Wigram snoops around looking for security breaches.
He is especially suspicious of the cryptographers - a raggedy
bunch of Bolsheviks, stammerers and other assorted oddballs - and also
disgusted that these "swots" have become, in the topsy-turvy wartime
world, as glamorous and sexy as fighter pilots or upper-crusty spyboys like himself.
Mr. Northam, who nearly stole "Gosford Park" with a song, is the only
performer in "Enigma" - which opens today in the New York
metropolitan region, Los Angeles, Chicago and Lexington, Ky. -who
shows any spontaneity or verve. Much is made of Claire's mischievous
spark: she dances around her room in stockings and slip and kicks up
her heels at a London nightclub. But she is really about as lively as
a wartime pinup, and written in about as many dimensions.
Mr. Northam, impeccably turned out in chalk-stripe suits and tilted
fedoras, his mouth a permanent smirk, radiates an easy contentment:
he knows his character is a stereotype and therefore doesn't strain
to be anything more. Strain, on the other hand, is the main emotion
displayed by Mr. Scott, who seems to be searching for a coherent
account of his character's psychology. It would be easier to crack
the U-boat code.
The mystery of "Enigma" is how a rich historical subject, combined
with so much first-rate talent - a highly capable (if not always exciting) director, a fine English cast, a script by Tom Stoppard -could have yielded such a flat, plodding picture. The producers are Lorne Michaels and Mick Jagger, from whom one might expect at least a touch of naughtiness, but the movie is thoroughly square and responsible, dotting every narrative "i" and crossing every thematic "t" so that the drama is stifled by exposition.
So many subplots compete for our attention and so many scenes of
keypunching and pencil-pushing are tricked out with sub-Hitchcock
suspense effects that the movie is a muddle. The dialogue seems to
have been written not by Mr. Stoppard but by a licensed Tom Stoppard
software program: it sounds smart and witty without really being either. But Mr. Stoppard is not to blame for the bizarre climax, which shifts the action suddenly to Scotland and invites us to entertain a geopolitical scenario too ludicrous even to qualify as speculation.
© The New York Times - 19/April/2002
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