Set in 1943, Enigma is an engrossing, atmospheric drama revolving around code breakers working feverishly to penetrate encrypted German messages. It’s also an effective romance between war-torn lovers caught in a web of professional deceit.
Based on the novel by Robert Harris, Enigma takes its name from the real-life coding machines used by Germany during World War II.
All too familiar with the permutations such a device can create, Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott, Mission: Impossible 2) suffers a nervous breakdown from the mind-boggling responsibility of breaking coded communiqués and the heart-breaking departure of his breathless romantic interest, Claire Romilly (Saffron Burrows, The Loss of Sexual Innocence).
But, all is fair in love and war, and Jericho is brought back to Bletchley Park, England’s epicenter of Allied code breaking activity. Having previously cracked Germany’s code, Jericho is needed once again after Germany changes it coding scheme.
As if war were not enough, Claire went missing during Jericho’s absence. Jericho finds himself being followed by a secret service agent known simply as Wigram (Jeremy Northam, The Net), who thinks Jericho is responsible for Claire’s murder.
Amidst the tensions of spies, counterspies, and code breakers sworn to secrecy regarding all they see and hear, Jericho finds an ally in Hester Wallace (Kate Winslet, Sense and Sensibility). Hester shared a cottage with Claire and shares Jericho’s concerns for the girl. The difference is Hester knows Claire was a player and a man-eater while Jericho still holds a naïve candle for the vixen.
Together, the two seek to unravel the mystery of Claire’s fate, break the code surrounding messages that were mysteriously removed from top-secret files, and thwart Germany’s advance in the war.
What makes Enigma successful is its stellar casting, from top to bottom.
Scott makes an impressive star turn in the role of Jericho. He has the same downtrodden, sleepless look Russell Crowe used in A Beautiful Mind to bring to life John Nash, another mathematical genius. Jericho is a notch above Scott’s role as Sean Ambrose, the double-crossing secret agent in M:I-2, and proves Scott to be a formidable talent and a rising star.
Burrows is scintillating as the promiscuous Claire, and Winslet is the perfect foil as the demure Hester. Even the name Hester conjures up certain qualities – quiet, smart, eyeglasses – and Winslet slyly obliges.
Equally notable as the talent in front of the camera is the talent behind the scenes.
Even though it has the look and feel of Masterpiece Theatre, Enigma was produced by Mick Jagger (yes, the Mick Jagger of Rolling Stones fame) and Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live. They were hardly left to their own devices; they surrounded themselves with some of the best names in the business in bringing Harris’ novel to the big screen.
Tom Stoppard, legendary for writing Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, wrote the screenplay. He’s managed a rare feat, to successfully translate a book into a screenplay, which in turn is successfully put into moving images.
Then there’s John Barry’s score. Even though one John Barry score sounds like any other John Barry score (probably because of his almost universal reliance on string instruments, his score for The Living Daylights being one exception), Barry’s composition for Enigma does strike the right notes in creating a mood and evoking emotions.
Codes and Apples
Michael Apted, who directed the Bond flick The World Is Not Enough, knows how to handle drama and densely plotted storylines. However, while Enigma’s story is involving, it’s got a sluggish pacing, due in part to the nature of the beast. It is, after all, a slow-simmer wartime thriller/historical drama, one with all the requisite twists of “are they or aren’t they” right up to the last frame.
Also, its conversations regarding the decoding processes and the “primitive” computers used to help break the codes are a head-spinning garble of mumbo-jumbo. Those scenes are spoken rather quickly, as if to acknowledge the details are not important – let’s get on with the story.
In truth, though, the story behind those mathematical minds is incredible. While Germany used the Enigma machines to create coded messages, Alan Turing invented the “bombe machine” to help decode the transmissions. After the war, Turing committed suicide by eating a poisoned apple. This formed the basis for the logo on Apple computers – an apple with one bite taken out of it.