In a typically British narrative style, "Enigma" once more presents the case for England's huge contribution in breaking Nazi codes and helping in a most significant way to bringing World War II to an end with an unconditional victory. There were many contributions toward that end, but this film sets out to detail one of them.
In a war as massive and destructive as that one, everyone is engaged, and the people involved in code breaking are not too dissimilar to ordinary folk save for their particular talents in higher math and abstract thinking. The genius at the pinnacle of this effort is Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott) who, while setting the bar for breaking codes by having previously done so, is returned to the team after a mental breakdown and there are those who are none too happy to see him again. But, the Nazis have formulated a new code with the aid of their ingenious "Enigma" machine, a typewriter-like electrical contrivance that enables them to mask their military orders from their enemies (us).
The code-breaking team already has an Enigma device, previously captured, but the key to the new transmissions have been changed, and Jericho's deductive abilities might be the only hope for discovering it. In such an operation, though, many people and many minds enter into the enterprise, each doing his or her (mostly her) part in organizing numbers and letters, keeping track of previous transmissions, etc. All completely secret, even one department's work from another's.
Jericho's return to the effort is paralleled in more emotional terms with his obsession for one of the departmental workers, Claire Romilly (the under-used Saffron Burrows) whose beauty and frisky personality justify his fixation. But she's a tantalizing woman of as much mystery as style, and she makes no bones about the fact that Scott is not her only "involvement". All the better to feed the obsession.
She disappears, and from that it's assumed by Jericho as well as by the ubiquitous investigator Wigram (Jeremy Northam) that she was involved as a traitor. Then, it's deduced that she's at the bottom of a lake, probably put there by her other lover who may just be a German mole. All are devastated by the disappearance even as a convoy of allied ships run into a gauntlet of German submarines whose transmissions are still unbreakable. The code breaking work goes on under increasing pressure.
To help him in his efforts, Jericho allies with Claire's housemate Hester Wallace (Kate Winslet) whom he has been pumping for information about Claire, and what she might have said about him. Understanding his questioning as the need of a jilted lover, it turns out that Claire is in a position of the code breaking team to offer him some assistance in analyzing a series of new intercepts. With her quick intelligence, she demonstrates a capability in understanding the logic of the machine and she becomes Jericho's conspirator in his analysis, which has now gone secret from the leaders of the team as Jericho falls more and more under suspicion for his involvement with Claire. Eventually, he proves that he's over Claire by falling for the plain but underlyingly attractive housemate.
There's plenty of intrigue and tension to keep this dual story alive, but not without limitations that prevent it from rising to the proportions of a classic. One of these is the so understated as to be geriatric delivery of the central role by Dougray Scott. Whether he thinks a laid back Cary Grant style is called for by the material or whether this is just his energized self, it brings the picture's vitality down to a plodding awkwardness.
Life is injected into the picture by Saffron Burrows' glamour and style. She excites with her extraordinary control of her effect on men, on her natural eroticism, her ability to turn seriousness into lightness and gaiety as the situation requires. Married to filmmaker Michael Leigh, and previously seen in his "Timecode", she is far too stunning and solid as an actress to confine herself to his films. Let's hope this is the first of much more exposure to an international audience. She is splendid as a 1940's femme fatale here, and rivals the illustrious Cate Blanchett and the mysteriously seductive Jennifer Connelly for intelligence, skill and beauty. We just have to see more of her!
Screenwriter Tom Stoppard ("Shakespeare in Love") provides good dialogue and a less than lively momentum as the two story lines cross and affect one another. Clarity at all times is an issue, but ultimately it's an interesting detail about the big war, the kind of people involved in it and, perhaps the destiny that we all share as a result of a seemingly impregnable bit of cryptology that was the state of the art in its time.
This part of the cryptology story is a complement to the one told in "U-571" in which a team of Americans capture the Enigma machine and which has given the British so much angst about what they consider an inaccurate portrayal of their accomplishment. In any case, this film shows how the device was used once it got into the hands of the British team of decoders.
Michael Apted ("7 Up" documentary series, James Bond "The World Is Not Enough") directed with his intelligence and taste leading, passionate vitality trailing. To the list of illustrious names attached to this project, add Tom Hollander as Logie and Mick Jagger as co-producer.