No plot holes, but it's not too thrilling

Loose ends get tied up, but `Enigma' lacks a spark


May 10, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Enigma, named for the Nazi secret-coding machine, has everything going for it except a pulse.

The real-life subject of the brilliant misfit Brits who broke the Nazis' codes couldn't be more compelling. The fictional story of a genius mathematician (Dougray Scott) who carries the torch for a femme fatale (Saffron Burrows) also working at the code-breakers' headquarters, Bletchley Park, brings home the risky excitement of life during wartime. Kate Winslet emerges once again in all her fleshy, brainy glory as another toiler at Bletchley Park and the woman of mystery's roommate.

From scene to scene, Tom Stoppard's script is crisp and clever, especially when Jeremy Northam is on hand as a dapper secret serviceman who keeps inventing new euphemisms for insanity when he puts down Scott for flipping out over Burrows. And under Michael Apted's direction, the movie has texture to burn - it's all lowering weather and clammy rooms, with sunlight occasionally streaking the dark greenery for an afternoon of Brahms at Bletchley Park.

Before long, you may wish Apted had burned some of that texture: The movie is in desperate need of fire.

Scott's character starts out depressed because Burrows lost interest in him, and only when Northam is goading him do the filmmakers draw anything sardonic or witty out of his slough of despondency. For some reason, Stoppard and Apted fail to generate the mounting excitement we should share when Scott learns that Burrows disappeared from Bletchley Park when the Germans changed a code the Brits had broken. Despite their sophistication, the filmmakers lack the old-fashioned storytellers' knack for momentum and punch - things the author of the source novel, Robert Harris, conjures with the vigor and bustle of his scene-setting.

To be fair, at least the moviemakers are trying to make an intelligent movie about intelligence-gathering. But they play the thriller game defensively - their main goal appears to be giving us just enough information regarding each twist and turn so we don't feel cheated by their surprises. Ironically, the biggest pleasure arises from the oldest movie cliche: Winslet radiating pluck as the kind of plain-Jane who is said to look not too bad as soon as she takes off her glasses. (Stoppard does provide her with the perfect, surgically precise comeback to this left-handed compliment.)

The movie is most energetic when staging mini-chases that have little to do with deductive reasoning and everything to do with whether the budding good-guy/good-gal espionage and romantic team of Scott and Winslet will get caught.

The juxtaposition of the critical work done at Bletchley with the human needs of its inmates should explode with entertainment value; at heart, it's the bombshell-among-the-eggheads kind of comedy typified by Ball of Fire, which starred Barbara Stanwyck as a mob-linked nightclub singer laying low by teaching slang to a group of lexicologists. But rather than use Burrows as a latter-day Stanwyck and Scott as a gloomy Gary Cooper, the moviemakers spend their energy spinning endless parallels between the Engima machine and Burrows' Enigma maiden, both impossible to crack.

Enigma is a movie you can respect. Ultimately it manages to tie together Burrows, Scott, Winslet and Northam, an Allied convoy heading into a swarm of U-boats and a Soviet massacre of Polish soldiers conducted during the Hitler-Stalin pact. But would you rather respect a film the morning after or enjoy yourself the night before?


Starring Dougray Scott, Kate Winslet, Jeremy Northam and Saffron Burrows

Directed by Michael Apted

Rated R

Released by Manhattan Pictures

Running time 118 minutes

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