It’s 1943, and World War II is at its height. At Station X, Bletchley Park, Britain’s top codebreakers have a serious problem: German U-boats have changed the codes with which they communicate with each other. An Allied merchant shipping convoy carrying 10,000 passengers and vital supplies, partway across the Atlantic, is in danger of attack.
Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott) is a highly-regarded codebreaker. He’s just returned from sick leave after the end of an affair with Claire Romilly (Saffron Burrows). Now a spy is suspected at Bletchley and Claire has disappeared. Tom and Claire’s roommate, Hester Wallace (Kate Winslet) try to find out the truth and uncover a wider network of betrayals than they had first thought.
Based on Robert Harris’s bestseller, adapted by Tom Stoppard, Enigma is the first film from Mick Jagger’s production company. It’s obviously intended as a corrective to the Hollywood fictions of such as U-571. As such, it’s a solidly decent, generally well acted movie which won’t waste your two hours, but it falls between two stools. The makers evidently thought that breaking the Enigma code would be too complex, not to mention lacking in action, to base a whole movie on. The scenes involving the codebreakers at work are under-explained and possibly hard to follow for anyone who doesn’t know the story already. To make up for this, Enigma emphasises the adventure angle, with 40s-style car chases and a hunt for a mole which ends up in a Scottish sea loch (shades of The 39 Steps here). Unfortunately this isn’t completely convincing: one wonders why Tom and Hester don’t go to the authorities, except that would reduce the running time by more than half an hour.
Acting honours go to Kate Winslet, wearing glasses and deliberately deglamourised as the head-girlish Hester. She’s a heroine of a period-set film who actually seems to belong to the time rather than seeming contemporary. She lets off a couple of tirades against patronising men and the unfairness of a set-up where she is effectively a filing clerk and the two men she beat in a crossword competition are cryptanalysts. Unfortunately, Winslet’s performance unbalances the film further: Hester is not the protagonist – Tom is – but Hester is a much more interesting character and you miss her when she’s offscreen. Tom, despite his complex backstory, is low-wattage in comparison; Dougray Scott is a little lacking in screen presence to hold together the film as he is asked to. Saffron Burrows seems a little unreal as the beautiful Claire, a deliberately mysterious character, and an underwritten one. There’s a good supporting turn from Jeremy Northam as the spymaster Wigram, poised, smooth, ineffably charming, but underneath deadly.
Michael Apted directs with his usual high competence, and the production design (John Beard) and widescreen camerawork (Seamus McGarvey) are further pluses. The Enigma story is a fascinating one, but it seems a few too many compromises have been made to bring it to the big screen.