by Alexander Walker
Code-breakers, like actors, are practised dissemblers. All the main characters in Enigma, the film of Robert Harris's suspense thriller, directed by Michael Apted and produced by Lorne Michaels and Mick Jagger (yes, that one), are concealing a secret (or two). Decoding motives as well as messages is the problem. Screenwriter Tom Stoppard cracks them open with style, subtlety and surprise. Brainwork is what the cinema seldom offers. Action, yes; Enigma has that, too, but it holds it in reserve for a heart-pounding ending, then brings it up to a pitch that would make Hitchcock purr. But this story's dramatic lifeblood is cerebration: intelligence, both official and commonplace.
It's an impatient film-goer who won't be hooked by the trail of detection, treachery and double (or treble) dealing that Apted lays down so intricately among the codebreakers at the famous, but, in 1943, still ultrasecret Bletchley Park. The clues start even before the credits roll. A blonde in an elegant fur wrap strolls across peacetime Trafalgar Square; a steam train thunders down the line; a German U-boat surfaces like a shark's fin; a human hand, black as a tree root, sticks out of the earth; a chap taps a pencil ... meditatively. Retrospectively, you realise all these random images are the jigsaw pieces of a plot that fit together like the rotor wheels on the captured German encoding machine that supplies the film's title and eventually reveals a secret wrapped in a riddle within a mystery.
Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott), a workingclass boy and an ace mathematician who solves Times crosswords off the cuff, returns from sick leave to the codebreakers' HQ, a red Victorian hulk hemmed in by Nissen huts whose shutters go up at blackout time and seal their classified secrets in with their owners. You see immediately the care lavished on recreating this hermetic community - ultimately 12,000 strong - of oddballs, bureaucrats, martinets, rulebreakers and geniuses, governed by oaths of official silence, private rivalries and personal antagonisms. The atmosphere is broody. The Germans have just changed their encryption codes. Unless Jericho and co can decipher the new multi-million variations - and quickly - Allied convoys already in mid-Atlantic will hit the bottom. Tempers fray. Corin Redgrave's visiting admiral bawls out a Navy codebreaker for slack dress, and gets a paw-like salute, more dismissive than disciplined: mavericks rule here, in tweedy jackets, on push bikes, lax in manners but razorbrained in ratiocination.
Blimps-versus-brainboxes forms a seriocomic overture to a plot that gradually darkens with the tensions of mutual mistrust among the boffins. One of them, a cipher clerk named Claire (Saffron Burrows), with whom Scott had the stormy affair that triggered his emotional breakdown, has gone absent just as the Germans switch ciphers. Is it coincidence or connivance? Has the silly girl met another man? Or has she gone over to the enemy? With the help of Claire's bluestocking room-mate, the frumpish, speccy Hester (Kate Winslet, raising dowdiness to convincing concern for her best friend), Jericho tries to solve her disappearance.
Wasting not a minute, but flashing backwards and forwards in place and time, Stoppard's brilliant screenplay runs the human puzzle of the missing girl's real relationships in tandem with the professional enigma of cracking the German codes. One solution unlocks the other. And ultimately the confluence of secrets creates a tidal tension, ebbing and flowing, on which we drift, sometimes a little baffled, but generally in the certainty that this clever film will explain all yet preserve a few human conundrums to enhance our pleasure with guesswork.
A movie doesn't often entice you to leave with such teasing souvenirs. As well as a patriotic pulse-beat, Enigma has a Proustian feel to it. Claire, an eye-dazzling blanc-de-blanc blonde, with red-lipped smile and dressed in bright primary colours, is seen only in the flashbacks of Jericho's memory. She thus acquires a tantalisingly spectre-like quality that gives the hard grind of decipherment its softer, emotional resonances.
And then there's Wigram. Played by Jeremy Northam, looking more than ever like the young Laurence Olivier, this upper-crust MI5 man mixes grit and oil together in an abrasively taunting performance. Without Northam, the story might droop under its own complexity. He puts steel into it, gives it a ruthless infrastructure in which class, cynicism and menace are deployed to entrap the guilty, or simply intimidate his inferiors. In his Savile Row suitings, with a manner both droll and devious, Wigram stands for the outsider's - and indeed England's - suspicion of intellectuals down the ages. He also personifies the upper hand of the upper classes. He knows how to charm in order to get under someone's guard. "Ovaltine!" he coos, as if it were a vintage claret, not a bedtime beverage, that Hester's landlady is offering him while he snoops around. Yet when he gives Jericho a going over, searching the man's pockets and mind, pressing on the shame of his nervous breakdown ("When you fell out of your pramÓ), you are left in no doubt that you're witnessing the dressing-down of a social inferior.
Stoppard, possessing the sharp ear for English and its uses that his own Czech origins gifted him with, makes Wigram the most engrossing and fully developed figure in the film. We know where he's coming from; and Northam knows, too. It's not just the character he plays, but the man. Yet Wigram, too, has his vulnerable secret which, when revealed, puts a whole new gloss on the near-incestuous relationships of Tom, Claire, Hester and others in the plot too important to be named by me.
You'll gather I enjoyed Enigma intensely. It made me realise the months that have dragged by this year since a pure-bred British film - though one financed by Dutch and German coin - has taken a generous measure of an audience's intelligence and used it to stiffen its own self-confidence and prove that entertainment gives pleasure to the mind, not just the viscera. Some critics may still take it to task for the sequences when the plot puts its foot on the action pedal: like the car chase through English lanes, or the air-sea-and-land climax on a Scottish loch that John Buchan might have imagined. Given Apted's aptitude for docudrama, not spectacle, such thrills may seem to violate the grip of the grey matter with their blood-and-thunder escapism. They don't. They ventilate the cloistered labyrinth of Stoppard's (and Harris's) story. Seldom have I been so fascinated by a view of one of Britain's wartime achievements - our cinema has neglected others, allowing Hollywood to steal, traduce and fictionalise some of our finest hours for its own gung-ho glory.
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