England, 1943. The Germans have unexpectedly changed the code they use to send messages to and from U-boats. Desperate to break this code before the Germans can attack a large Allied convoy crossing the Atlantic, British authorities turn to mathematics genius Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott). Tom has just recovered from a nervous breakdown brought on by a combination of overwork and a fling with file-room femme fatale Claire (Saffron Burrows), who disappeared after taking intercepted messages out of the office. Was Claire spying for the Germans? During breaks from his codebreaking labors, Tom and Claire’s roommate, Hester (Kate Winslet), try to find out.
With enough huge close-ups of typewriter keys and cryptograms to fill a Raoul Ruiz film, Enigma is an attractive piece of cryptographic cinema. At its best, it evokes the professional idealism celebrated in British wartime documentaries, the quiet virtue of people unpretentiously Doing Their Part. There’s a touching scene in which a group of women whose job is to stay in a room all day transcribing beep-beeps from the enemy get a surprise visit from Tom, the famed codebreaker. One of them gets up the nerve to ask him whether their work is really helping. They all look up from their desks, waiting for his answer. This scene is the heart of Enigma, which should have stayed longer in this mode of tribute to workers buried in routine tasks far from the front lines.
It’s the conceit of the story that Tom (whose job is just a notch or two more glamorous than that of the transcribers) gets to promote himself into a kind of hero. This is unobjectionable for dramatic purposes, but the film runs into problems trying to pretend that cryptography is romantic, adventurous, and fraught with perils to life and moral certainty. Claire’s unimpressiveness is a major weakness: Tom Stoppard’s script (based on Robert Harris’s novel) doesn’t give her enough to do to make Tom’s obsession with her understandable, though director Michael Apted and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey compensate by giving a scrubbed, gleaming look to her flashbacks (whereas the present-time scenes are grimmer and grayer and show a sallower, sometimes unshaven Tom). The film briefly poses what seems like a moral problem when Tom proposes sacrificing one of the convoy ships in order to obtain a sample of U-boat signals large enough for him to crack the code. But the dilemma is patently false, since the convoy is doomed anyway, and no one questions the greater good.
Still, there’s a lot to like about the film. The framing is tense and dynamic throughout (among Western directors working in the CinemaScope ratio today, Apted is one of the few who show an interest in using the width of the screen) and Stoppard’s dialogue sharp and rich. The terseness of the cutting is pleasing; so is the witty, taunting performance of Jeremy Northam as the secret-service man who persecutes Tom with professional sadism while trying to unmask the suspected spy among the codebreakers.
Every few minutes, Apted comes up with the sort of small, successful visual touch that would be unremarkable in a film from the ’50s or ’60s but that in today’s commercial cinema looks avant-garde, like the way Robert Pugh’s Skynner staggers back from a blow, struggling to keep upright but belatedly and apologetically falling. A night-drive scene features sculpturally lit faces against flat black; it’s a mysterious, flavorful studio look achieved in defiance of current conventions of screen naturalism.
Atoning for his stint as a hack director of nonsensical action scenes in The World Is Not Enough, Apted all but throws away the few — very few — moments of action here. Enigma tries to revive pre-Bond forms of the espionage thriller, and it has an agreeable nostalgia for old neatnesses. Late in the story, there’s a satisfyingly old-fashioned sequence in which various characters with competing motives board the same train. The film is, all the same, a little dull — but it’s a nice dull.