enigma (2001)

director: michael apted

kate winslet, dougray scott, saffron burrows

Michael Apted's Enigma - produced by Mick Jagger and Lorne Michaels, with a script by Tom Stoppard -- is impressive-sounding on paper. Based on a novel by Robert Harris, it sets a thriller and a doomed love story among the mathematical geniuses and eccentrics of Bletchley Park, the top secret facility where British intelligence cracked Nazi ciphers.

Harris' novels, historical fantasies set during or around World War Two and its major events, should make decent films. They're fast and light and full of familiar but compelling events and images, but for some reason they end up onscreen as flat and overworked, like someone edited together scraps of wartime propaganda, transcribed a script, and set to work with a new cast and better sets.

Dougray Scott plays Tom Jericho, a prototypical geek whose facility with numbers is married to a hopeless, inept romanticism. He's had a nervous breakdown after a disastrous affair with vampish fellow codebreaker Claire (Saffron Burrows). She's disappeared, and he's been returned in disgrace to Bletchley, in a last-ditch effort to break the new U-boat codes before the Germans can sink everything in the North Atlantic.

Needless to say, the codebreaking story is mere set-dressing for the love story that uncovers Claire's possible treachery and brings Tom together with her "frumpy" housemate, played by an undeniably pregnant Kate Winslet. The casting of Winslet as the "plain" girl is just one of the witless choices made before a frame of Enigma was shot. The other was deciding that audiences can't deal with the real story of the misfit geniuses and their ruthless bosses who did as much to win the war as any fighter pilot or general. That story is in there somewhere, muscled aside by some rather stale thriller conventions, up to and including a chase to intercept a U-boat escape from some Scottish bay, and the inevitable, pawnshop-overused moment when Winslet takes off her glasses.

It's a shame, really, since the story of Bletchley Park is a fascinating one, and deserves better than a single, almost obligatory scene of brow-furrowing boffins figuring sums, mercifully rushed through in time to get back to an unlikely and uncompelling love story and a chase through narrow English country roads.