Enigma (2001)

When it’s on: Saturday, 14 March (10.45 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

In the build-up to this year’s Academy Awards, I managed to catch a screening of The Imitation Game and enjoyed it very much, in fact second to The Grand Budapest Hotel it was the entry from which I derived the most pleasure. It tells the story of troubled genius Alan Turning with surprisingly little sentiment, letting the facts of his oddities and homosexuality speak for themselves whilst making clear to viewers the extent of his achievement in cracking the Enigma code. Great work from Benedict Cumberbatch, the sort of actor who, for me, was yet to live up to all the hype, until this at any rate.

The film does a very good job of cancelling out any impact made by the more fictional Enigma, a movie released in 2001 and based on the novel by Robert Harris. It tells much the same story, but replaces Turing with a romantic, straight hero, played by Dougray Scott, and throwing in a plotline about uncovering traitors within the heart of the Bletchley community, a crew of clever people brought together in order to work on breaking encrypted Nazi communication. Doing so makes for a decent thriller, but excising Turing altogether leaves a sense of shame. Would telling the true story of the man behind the code have made for a lesser film? Clearly not, though it’s heartening to see public exoneration In recent years of a man who individually did more for the war effort than pretty much anyone. Certainly, the city of Manchester has done much to apologise for its part in his shameful early demise.

In Enigma, Scott plays Tom Jericho, a highly intelligent mathematician who has previously designed a sophisticated machine to crack the German cipher used on its Enigma machines. At the same time, he’s fallen in love with fellow Bletchley worker Claire (Saffron Burrows), the glamorous blonde who leaves him broken hearted and is partly to blame for his nervous breakdown. Semi-recovered, he returns only to find Claire has vanished, her steps being traced by shadowy intelligence agent Wigram (Jeremy Northam), whilst the U-Boat attacks have started to increase as the Nazis have changed one of their reference books, leaving the code-breaking team to go back to work before more convoys crossing the North Atlantic are destroyed. Searching for Claire, Jericho enlists the help of her housemate, the altogether frumpier Hester (Kate Winslet), and together they piece together her movements before she disappeared. Evidence suggests Claire had something to do with the Germans discovering their codes had been broken, possibly that she was a traitor feeding information to the enemy. As Jericho begins to relive his brief affair with Claire, he remembers her going through his stuff, pressing him for the secrets he possessed. Was she using sex as part of a double agent’s work?

The peeling away of revelations is quite well told, with the characters given great lines by writer Tom Stoppard to emphasise the high IQ levels floating around Bletchley, but at the centre of it all Scott does something really interesting as Jericho, playing him as essentially exhausted. The juxtaposition between the present man and the younger guy falling in love is brilliantly told, those earlier scenes bathed in sunlight and Jericho appearing optimistic and highly alive, as opposed to the jaded, post-breakdown character who can hardly be bothered to lift his head when merchant ships and thousands of lives are in danger of being lost. All he cares about is Claire, the pain of losing her clear to see and made worse because he realises that whether she’s found or not, her exit from his life is permanent.

Elsewhere, Winslet is a bit of a surprise in her dressed down part, but has no trouble nailing the cleverness and latent sexuality of her character. Northam is fantastic, one of those smooth, reptilian performances that reveals nothing about himself whilst projecting out onto other people. As Claire, Burrows has little to do but show why men fall madly in love with her, which they do easily enough. There’s a great supporting cast of emerging British actors, including a very fresh faced Tom Hollander and Matthew Macfadyen. Danish actor, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, currently stealing the show in Game of Thrones, is present as one of the Bletchley code breakers, somehow looking great despite all those sleepless nights working through page after page of encrypted messages.

Director Michael Apted had been directing since the early 1960s, best known for his work on the Up series of television documentaries whilst bringing an eclectic body of cinematic work to bear. His is a sure hand, lending the film a slow burning tension, a steady unraveling of the secrets locked within Bletchley, which is about right for the material. Clues, when they emerge, are hard earned and have consequences. It’s not the best tale for those who like their thrillers to come with high concept spills; one glance at the knackered looking Scott should put paid to that. Even the film’s biggest action set piece, a car chase along English country roads, appears to be running at half the speed of your average Hollywood caper. But it’s well acted, nicely spun together and ends on an appropriately bittersweet moment.

Enigma: ***

6 Replies to “Enigma (2001)”

  1. This is the kind of movie I like but, for some reason, I missed it when it played in the cinema, and I still haven’t seen it. Even if it’s a fictionalized version of the code breaking operation, I can live with that as long as there’s a reasonably solid story there, I’ll have to track this down.

    1. Thanks Colin. I think you would like it – despite the language and one scene involving slight nudity, it has a very ‘classical’ feel to it, and Stoppard’s dialogue is great in places. It’s dirt cheap also, I think the copy I bought from Amazon for this review was less than three quid.

  2. When I saw IMITATION GAME, this was the first thing I thought of – however, this was partly because the heavy fictionlising of the Turing film (almost none of the incidents, as portrayed, seem to have actually happened that way in real life) seemed in a way to have been made very much in the wake of it. Certainly the Mark Strong character seems to be modelled completely on the Northam role in ENIGMA and the scene in which Turing returns home and finds Strong going through his papers is pretty much identical to the equivalent sequence with Scott and Northam. I think the Turing film is worthy and enjoyable but hated the way it bent the facts to suit a movie fiction structure (literally the beginning with Rory Kinnear, the middle with Knightley and the sequence at the end are all made up). My ‘problem’ with ENIGMA is that, despite its old-fashioned Hitchcock thriller values, is that Scott plays it for real and comes across as much too damaged and psychologically weak to convince in the later the action hero sequences.

    1. Thanks – I didn’t realise how many liberties The Imitation Game took with actual events, but the ‘Hollywoodising’ of reality to suit a film structure is of course nothing new and par for the course really.

      I quite liked Scott in Enigma, but would agree that he makes little sense in the later moments after crawling wounded and louche through much of the film.

  3. After reading your review some time ago, have only watched this film today. Found it to be very good and thought that Dougray Scott, played Tom very well, his pain written for all to see across his weary face. I am ashamed to say the only other role I have seen Scott in is Desperate Housewives!

    1. Glad you took the time to watch it Hollybelle. Scott is definitely very good in it and, as you say, captures the emotional turmoil of his character really well. If you’re a Dougray fan, maybe check out The Crow Road if you get the chance. It’s a terrific BBC mini series and he’s very good in it.

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