The Big Picture: Enigma (15)

Tales from the cryptic
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The Independent Culture

How do you turn a desk job into a thriller? This is the problem which Enigma, based on the best-selling novel by Robert Harris, sets out to solve. It's essentially another story of how we won the war, only here the war is being fought not on the battle fronts of Europe but in the operations centre of a glum Victorian railway town between Oxford and Cambridge, its very name "stranded somewhere between blanching and retching", is where many bright young men and women worked in secrecy to crack the Germans' supposedly unbreakable Enigma code.

One such is Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott), a Cambridge mathematician who has been instrumental in breaking "Shark", the Enigma cipher of the U-boats. Recuperating from a nervous crack-up, Tom has been summoned back to Bletchley in March 1943 after the Nazis suddenly change their cipher and plunge the code-breakers into blackout. A million tons of Allied shipping cross the Atlantic bringing vital supplies to Europe while wolf-packs of U-boats, guided by the German High Command, prowl in readiness. Jericho and his team, a tweedy lot of linguists, theoreticians and assorted eggheads, have four days to crack the new code, or else the convoy is, literally, dead in the water.

And talking of indecipherables, what exactly is that accent Dougray Scott attempts here? As far as I could tell, it starts out from Yorkshire, heads down south and dallies around before turning back in the direction of his native Scotland. A distracting medley, for sure, and within a film that purports to highlight the herculean struggles with language and the importance of precision, rather disappointing. In other respects the attention to detail is blameless, most notably in Scott's greasy hair (hot water and soap at a premium during wartime) and the look of near-permanent exhaustion of a code-breaker cogitating round the clock. As it turns out, it's not just overwork that has pushed Jericho to the edge – he's been through the mangle of an unhappy love affair. So besotted was he with the glamorous Claire (Saffron Burrows) that, when jilted, he risked spilling code-room secrets to win her back; now the woman has disappeared, the police are dragging the lake and Jericho faces the possibility that Bletchley has been harbouring a spy.

Intrigued? You might be, though Michael Apted's competent, foursquare direction never really sets the pulse racing. On the one hand, he tries to do justice to the formidable complexity of the task confronting Bletchley's cryptanalysts – roughly equivalent to searching for a needle in one of a million haystacks. And on the other, he needs to keep the thriller plot ticking over. Tom Stoppard's screenplay hasn't found a way around flatpacking information, so a minor character is occasionally obliged to start a speech with "Do you mean to say?" and then disgorge a load of facts that ends, lamely, on an interrogative. And while Jericho's affair is glancingly played out in flashback, the credibility of it is undermined by the casting of Burrows as the femme fatale; with her immaculately coiffed Rita Hayworth tresses, perfect skin and scarlet lipstick, she looks like she's just flown in from a beauty pageant, and the contrast with everyone else's pasty complexions and drab duds is far too severe.

The film is more confident with those characters who, oddly enough, seem most stereotypically British. Kate Winslet plays bespectacled, frumpy Hester Wallace, a plucky young gal whose know-how helps Jericho in the search for clues to his ex's sudden disappearance. As she also reminds him, the brainy men summoned to Bletchley all become cryptanalysts, but the brainy women, like her, have to make do as clerks and typists, their ambitions believed to reach no higher than their underwear ("Utility knickers – one Yank and they're off"). Similarly, the invisible bonds of the British class system hold firm within Bletchley, a truth made apparent to Jericho by the needling supervision of Wigram, a Special Intelligence spook and patrician of the old school. Jeremy Northam plays this character with the cold-eyed suavity of Cary Grant in Notorious; he's meant to be one of the good guys, yet his smirking condescension towards Jericho bristles with an almost Waugh-like hatred. (He stops just short of calling him an oik).

Northam is good in the rôle, and makes even the smoking of a cigarette seem an act of lordly disdain, yet the ripples of tension he stirs up – like much else in the film – go mostly to waste. Apted and his team have been painstaking in their reconstruction of wartime austerity, and you can almost smell the bad food and tobacco fug. But the problem of recasting the book's darkly introspective mood, and of getting the action out of doors, has in the end defeated them. There's a car chase down muddy country lanes, pursuit of a suspect on a train, and later a Buchan-ish drive up to Scotland (petrol rationing by now conveniently forgotten) where other cast members seem to have been hanging around till Jericho arrives, before carrying on with the plot.

If it were credible that our hero could turn from a neurotic maths whizz into a dashing Robert Donat type, that would be something; sadly, Scott has become so familiar in wan close-up or looking ill behind a desk that one almost forgets he has a pair of legs – the sight of him suddenly sprinting looks faintly absurd. You get the feeling that an awful lot of hard work has been put into Enigma, which makes its muffled, plodding quality as much a cause for puzzlement as regret.

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