Two riddles wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a codebreaking thriller inside 'Enigma'
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Michael Apted's meticulously crafted thriller, which is set in 1943, evokes an image of England familiar from news- reels of the time. This is an austere, grey-hued world where the men – at least, those not in uniform – wear drab suits and well-nigh permanent frowns, the women with their demure floral dresses and hairpins all look like Phyllis Calvert, and everybody seems to be feeling the strain after four years of war.

Apted, the film's director, and his cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, have aimed for a desaturated look. The only splashes of colour are provided by the femme fatale Claire (Saffron Burrows), who has hair like Rita Hayworth in Gilda and a penchant for wearing violently red lipstick.

Mick Jagger's co-producer on the film, Lorne Michaels, has characterised it as a "hacker wins World War Two" yarn, but Enigma is not to be mistaken for a teen flick. The egghead protagonist, Tom Jericho (played with Eeyore-like gloom by Dougray Scott), spends much of the film trying to decipher Germany's new "Enigma" codes. He's a nervous presence, lacking the gumption of his endlessly enthusiastic accomplice, Hester (Kate Winslet in Joyce Grenfell mode.)

The fascination of the film lies in the ambivalence of its attitude toward wartime Britain. At its most nostalgic, the film seems like a wartime flagwaver made half a century too late – but if Apted celebrates the best of British, he also shows the worst.

As Robert Harris noted in his 1995 novel, Enigma (from which the film is adapted), Bletchley Park – the wartime codebreaking centre in Buckinghamshire, where most of the movie's action is set – was "a paradigm of the English class system". It is represented as a hive of voyeurism, eavesdropping and bureaucracy. Snobbery and sexism are rife. The Secret Service, as embodied by Jeremy Northam's sleek, cynical agent, Wigram, is as careless about human life as the Nazis.

Tom Stoppard's screenplay deftly interweaves the two "enigmas" of the story – the signals that Jericho must try to decode, and the mysterious fate of Claire, who seemingly abandons him after a brief affair and may have gone over to the enemy. As he rifles through her underwear drawer, however, sexual jealousy is what seems to be driving him rather than patriotism.

Apted's last feature, The World Is Not Enough, grossed more than $300m. Enigma has little chance of managing the same, but, in its own way, it is a much better movie. A triumph for the British film industry? Not exactly: there's not a penny of British money in it. The film owes its existence to Dutch tax breaks and big-pocketed German backers. As Apted lamented: "Here's a film about England beating Germany in the war – and Germany paid for it."