Thursday, May 23, 2002

Technical difficulties

Movie: Enigma

Posted on Thu, May 23, 2002 at 4:00 AM

***
Our Rating: 3.00

At moments, Mick Jagger's first foray into film production is almost as hard to decipher as the World War II German code machine for which the movie is named. The Enigma, a primitive computer resembling a typewriter with flashy lights, held the secrets to many of Hitler's war plans. The code was cracked by a British mathematician, but the Nazis successfully reprogrammed their transmission formulas, which is where this story begins.

Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott), who had broken the original code, is called back to the English intelligence compound at Bletchley Park to try again. But Jericho, a frazzled genius, has had a nervous breakdown because his beautiful co-worker-turned-girlfriend, Claire (Saffron Burrows), dumped him. Now she also has disappeared. Being ever so bright, Jericho realizes that something has gone terribly awry when he finds German codes buried beneath a floorboard in Claire's bedroom. He recruits her relatively homely housemate, Hester (Kate Winslet), also an employee at Bletchley Park, to help him find out what has happened to the missing woman -- and to defend her honor from the wrath of Wigram (Jeremy Northam), a debonair British security agent who claims that Claire is a Nazi mole. Wigram also expresses doubts about Jericho's loyalty to the throne.

No one, including the viewers, seems to know who can be trusted, and that's what makes this movie fun to watch. Claire, shown in flashbacks, certainly could be a spy. After all, when she sleeps with Jericho, she can't keep her hands off his private papers. Wigram, who at first comes across as an almost simple-minded and overzealous patriot, grows increasingly sinister as the story unfolds. And the prim and proper Hester, who is forced to be something of a double agent as she helps Jericho against the wishes of her employer, must step carefully when she finds herself falling for her roomies' ex-beau. The plot twists come fast and furiously as Jericho races to thwart German U-boat attacks on Allied ships in the North Atlantic, while simultaneously pursuing the truth about Claire.

Unfortunately, the brain-teasing plot structure bogs down whenever it delves into the details of the mathematics involved in the Enigma's arcane numeric formulas. The frequent math lessons come off as little more than glib techno-speak at the hands of playwright-turned-scriptwriter Tom Stoppard. Think "Shakespeare in Love" talk uttered by "A Beautiful Mind." Part of the problem may rest with producer Jagger, who handpicked Robert Harris' spy novel for the first release by his Jagged Films. Born in 1943, the year the novel is set, the Rolling Stones mouthpiece became so engrossed with the story that he actually purchased one of the original Enigma machines (there were hundreds of them) and let Stoppard play with it during the scripting process.

The boys clearly became too enamored of their toy, for Jagger, Stoppard and director Michael Apted subject us to way too much unfathomable dialogue about "kestrels," "cribs," "type X machines," "ADVs" and other such gibberish. The technical entanglements seriously slow the pace of a good story, in which the intrigue comes from nicely developed, well-acted characters in a maddening race against the clock -- and for truth.

Ultimately, "Enigma" may not be all the spy film you want, but if you try it sometime, you just might find you get the thrills you need.

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