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The Observer

by Jason Solomons, 30th September 2001


Michael Apted's Enigma is like a tweed jacket with crackled leather patches at the elbows. It is comfortable and sensible, a sturdy sort of film, not very sexy but redolent of pipe tobacco and Oxbridge libraries.

Set among the donnish code breakers of Bletchley Park in 1943, it also now takes on a resonance which transcends its period. Watching it while Bush and Blair form war coalitions, the film shows those of us too young to remember what it was like to live under the spectre of war. Enigma is a war movie without guns and soldiers, where the real action is confined to a domestic basement. As Tom Stoppard's literate script puts it: 'This is where the swots become as glamorous as fighter pilots.'

Dougray Scott plays maths whizz Tom Jericho with a Manchester accent and a painful lack of social confidence. He gives him a grammar school dowdiness that makes him awkward in his clothes, as if his knitted tie constricted him while all the Cambridge chums move smoothly and charmingly around Bletchley's grounds - just like being back at school, old boy.

The story treats Jericho's fevered attempts to crack the Germans' intercepted codes using a wonderful old computer made of wood. There are many fine scenes of the assembled boffins sitting in their room playing chess, scratching their tufty beards and winning the war by doing crosswords. And here the details delight: the black out boards being removed in daylight, the lunchtime classical recitals, the crowds swarming out of Bletchley back to boarding houses and landladies and Ovaltine.

John Beard's design is complemented by Seamus McGarvey's photography, which makes England look green and pleasant but a little dun-coloured and ill-fed: sunshine is rationed in wartime too.

British films do this stuff well and if you must do period pieces, it clearly pays to choose a period which was been captured on film in the first place. It gives us pertinent comparisons and there are moments in Enigma when you could be watching Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll.

Churchill would have liked this film but he might also have complained that Enigma is a war movie wrapped in a love story - Scott's Jericho is obsessed not only by numbers but by Saffron Burrows. This torments him and it takes Kate Winslet's jolly Cotswolds gal to ground him with her practicality.

The love story is less interesting and you get the feeling Apted couldn't really be bothered with it, though Winslet is rather good, stomping around like an Enid Blyton character saying robust things such as: 'You aren't the one with the Kestrel transcripts stuffed in your knickers.' Call it Twin Set and Pearl Harbour, but Enigma is an enjoyable, well-dressed and polite British thriller that your grandmother would like.

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