Robert Harris's novel about wartime codebreaking has become a handsome, if simplistic, film, says Peter Bradshaw, 28th September 2001
No red-blooded student of history could fail to be fascinated at the story of Bletchley Park and the Enigma code-breaking machine in the second world war. It's packed with drama and gorgeous period incidentals. There's the Germans' original cipher machine plucked from the sinking U-boat; there are the pipe-smoking, chess-playing, eccentricity-displaying chaps recruited from Oxbridge to work on cracking the code; there are the adorable WAAF-type girls uncomplainingly working on second-division secretarial tasks in their dimly lit hut.
As it happens, theatregoers on both sides of the Atlantic have for years been aware of the legendary emotional back-story to all this in the form of Hugh Whitemore's play Breaking the Code: the story of Alan Turing, the brilliant but unhappy Station X codebreaker whose homosexuality was tolerated because of his incalculable contribution to the war effort. Robert Harris's bestselling novel, and this screen adaptation by Tom Stoppard, briskly abolish Turing's role in history, moreover ruling out any fictional variation, and effectively reclaim the Enigma story for showbusiness family values.
This is not the depressing story of suicidal cottaging boffins, but of a smoulderingly handsome maths whiz turned action hero, Tom Jericho, played by Dougray Scott, who is to enjoy the romantic favours of two beautiful women employed at Bletchley Park: first Saffron Burrows and then Kate Winslet. His detective work will involve an exciting chase in a classic car, a liaison at a smart West End hotel and an exploding submarine up in Scotland - preposterous Boy's Own stuff which is light years away from the closeted realities of Bletchley Park, but it gives director Michael Apted a chance to show the form he developed on the recent Bond extravaganza The World Is Not Enough.
Scott first appears on screen as a shambling, unshaven creature who has been allowed back to Bletchley Park after a "breakdown", brought on by overwork and - we are indirectly given to understand - emotional problems. (And it is incidentally here, I suspect, in this combination of talent and torment, that Stoppard's screenplay allows for a tiny, residual acknowledgement of the Turing legend.) The Bletchley Park brainboxes, led by Logie - a warmly droll, engaging performance from Tom Hollander - know they desperately need Jericho's help because the Germans have changed the U-boats' communication code, leaving their north Atlantic convoys terrifyingly unprotected. So Scott has to get his thinking cap back on for king and country, and come to terms as best he can with the memories of Claire, a colleague with whom he had a passionate affair but who has now mysteriously disappeared.
The movie sets two hares running. There's the problem of how to crack the Nazis' devilish code, and there's the second plot, which is the "emotional" storyline and the centre of a conspiracy far more sinister and more important than breaching the armour of the Germans' reinforced cipher-system.
This first problem is solved fairly straightforwardly: Jericho realises they will be able to work out the code from the U-boats' positions when they actually attack: a "eureka" scene similar to Michael Redgrave as Barnes Wallis solving the problem of how high to release his bouncing bombs from seeing the convergence of spotlights at the theatre. It is a chilling moment when the intelligence team realises that the convoy will have to be "sacrificed" for this discovery, and I thought I heard a whisper of Jack Hawkins in The Cruel Sea: "But there are some of our chaps in the water!"
But the real structural problem concerns the second plotline with its skulduggery and political bad faith. Stoppard's script gives away almost in the first reel what Robert Harris's novel saves for the big finish. We are hardly 15 minutes into the picture when we get stomach-turning scenes of German officers presiding over a mass grave in a forest, one Wehrmacht signaller tapping away his encrypted messages. It doesn't take much to put two and two together, and much of the impact of betrayal and counter- betrayal is lost. Michael Apted and Tom Stoppard are spoiling the ending to their own film!
Perhaps they thought that an early showing of these scenes cranks up the movie's action quotient and without them, it would all just be about a bunch of wittering limeys with their glorified adding machines. I can only say I disagree: much of the story's attraction is its purely cerebral mise-en-scène . But Kate Winslet gives a good account of the game, go-getting Hester, Claire's housemate. She is a very different person from the slimline, starry, sexy Winslet advertised on the film's poster. On screen she is the bespectacled, dumpy, less attractive best friend, and, as in Harris's novel, there is something piquant in Jericho finding a second-best love with humble, unglamorous Hester now that Claire is missing, presumed dead.
The real star turn, however, is the secret service man, Wigram, brought in to investigate Claire's disappearance. This is a marvellously enjoyable performance from Jeremy Northam, for whom Stoppard has some mouth-watering lines. He relishes every patrician flourish, every languid, feline insinuation. "A hunting print!" he marvels to Scott's landlady, gazing raptly at her walls, adding with pure snobbish cruelty: "Do you hunt?" I would have liked to have seen more of Northam, who has the spirit of John Buchan as he charges up and down train corridors, service revolver drawn. The movie leaves open the possibility of a post-war sequel with the delectable Claire: perhaps super-spies Northam and Burrows can be reunited in Suez?
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