Enigma (2001)

D: Michael Apted
S: Dougray Scott, Kate Winslett

Self-consciously old fashioned romantic melodrama set against the background of WWII espionage, based upon the novel by Robert Harris. England, circa 1943, codebreakers face a crisis when their newly acquired skills in decoding German U-boat radio traffic seem useless in the face of an upgrade in technology and a switch in encryption. Can ace Dougray Scott (the man who broke the original Enigma code) come back from the brink of nervous breakdown and help them to get back inside? Why did he have his breakdown anyway and what has sexy Saffron Burrows got to do with it? Has her recent disappearence got something to do with the Germans suddenly changing things? Meanwhile dowdy but underappreciated co-worker Kate Winslett (Titanic) finds herself drawn into the action and closer to Scott. How will things pan out between them?

Though adult in some senses, Tom Stoppard's script is disappointingly dull. It cannot quite escape the familiarity of the scenario, and its appeal to a less sensational type of dramatic action will not win it any fans among the casual viewers more used to fast-paced, hi-octane stuff. Its vague aspirations to replicate a style of pre-war British espionage yarn popularised in the likes of The 39 Steps falter in the face of a deadening pace and an arch senseof humour. It is adult insofar as the dialogue is literate and Stoppard largely eschews the Hollywood screenwriter's penchant for repetition and expositional summary. The plot moves along without a lot of stretches where characters describe in detail precisely what they are doing. Though there are some, they do not then do it again three scenes later for the benefit of those who weren't paying attention the first time. The viewer is therefore expected to engage with the film on a level more typical of a previous generation. On one hand this works to its advantage in that it will appeal to an older audience, but on the other there is too much here that they have seen before for it to be of much interest.

On some level the film is also adult as a deconstruction of the James Bond-type of espionage yarn; a moot point perhaps but one which seems deliberate. The downplay of the world of international intrigue lacks the social critique of the likes of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, but the lionising of the number-crunching nerd and his less than glamourous sidekick certainly seems to have polemical weight behind it. It is probably just co-incidence that director Michael Apted helmed the most recent Bond adventure The World is Not Enough.

Curiously though the film is not a rebuttal of the recent historical fantasia U-571 , in which the story of the capture of the Enigma machine was re-visioned as an American operation. That film also worked very much in a hi-octane mould, leading to the natural assumption that the adoption of the opposite style here might have some kind of aesthetic significance. Apparantely not. The probelm is that this fictional story is every bit as fanciful in its details (though many of the essentials are true) as any other. It has simply chosen romance and melodrama instead of action as its generic root. This is where it loses its edge, as it plays the conventions of the genre by rote and is not any more realistic or authentic than the next romantic melodrama when it comes down to it.

Enigma is a handsomely photographed, respectfully acted, generally well crafted film which has a certain mug-of-tea-and-warm-slippers appeal which might play well on television screens. In spite of its attempts to enliven the narrative with a flashback-flash forward structure and some cutaways to scenes of struggle at sea, it is turgid stuff though. The film tacks on a page of text at the end which puports to pay tribute to the anonymous efforts of 'ordinary' people, but this seems a cynical ploy in a movie where the ingredients of romantic melodrama are the most pronounced, however 'ordinary' the appearence of its stars. Ordinariness is not exactly a thematic preoccupation, nor does the story serve as an exemplar of experience the way the action in Saving Private Ryan was intended to. The film on the whole is a minor addition to the recent slew of WWII movies though it feels like it hoped it was going to be something much more significant. It is unlikely to do well on the big screen, though it will probably become a staple of smaller ones for some time to come (watch for it on public holidays and wet afternoons, possibly after a screening of Brief Encounter or Casablanca).

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.