Tales from the Cryptographer 

Code-breaking details give Enigma its secret weapon

If the History Channel made feature films, they'd be very much like Enigma. Adapted from Robert Harris' historical thriller, Enigma shows little interest in its characters or the whodunit storyline that takes place at Bletchley Park, the hush-hush base for England's code-breaking operations during World War II.

But Enigma is palpably thrilled by its subject matter, eagerly leaping at the chance to show a realistic, for-your-eyes-only look at the system of secret war-time messaging. You can practically feel the filmmakers enthusiastically at your elbow as the film shows off an actual Nazi "Enigma" encryption machine, which looks like the marriage of a manual typewriter to an old telephone switchboard. The film excitedly explains how Enigma machines work, how intelligence exploits intercepted transmissions, and even the role of primitive computers the size of power stations.

If all this authentic but geeky spy stuff leaves you cold, you're not likely to get much from Enigma. It has an overly complicated plot and underdeveloped characters, but a lively, deglamorized turn from Kate Winslet offers great compensations.

Enigma embraces the cliches of 1940s melodrama. Heroic Naval officers have scarred faces and black eye patches, and the story involves a race against a deadline. A high-strung mathematician with the faintly ridiculous name of Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott) returns to Bletchley Park following a nervous breakdown and gets dire news: Although Jericho was instrumental in breaking the Nazis' "Shark" code months earlier, the Germans have abruptly changed it just days before an Allied convoy of ships enters the range of Nazi U-Boats. Jericho and his tweedy, twitchy co-workers have only four days to unlock "Shark" again before the Germans start sinking our ships.

The mystery deepens with the disappearance of Jericho's former lover Claire (Saffron Burrows), a leggy blonde who bedded then spurned the code-breaker, precipitating his mental collapse. With hostile superiors and a suspicious spycatcher (Jeremy Northam, exuding an oily charm) all but looking over his shoulder, Jericho tries to retrace Claire's actions, as she may have been some kind of enemy agent.

Jericho finds an initially reluctant ally in Claire's roommate Hester, whom Kate Winslet plays with owlish eyeglasses and more pounds than usual. A frustrated clerk at Bletchley Park, she's something of an assertive wallflower, staring men dead in the face because she's so used to them ignoring her. Winslet offers some delightfully layered acting against type, as Hester's initially blocky and rigid body language give way to increased flirtation with Jericho and excitement at their amateur sleuthing.

Scott gives Jericho a haunted and intense presence that we ultimately sympathize with, while Burrows proves a beguiling object of desire as Claire. But though Enigma flashes back and forth between Jericho's memories of his romance with Claire and his depressing present without her, we never care much about her fate.

Tom Stoppard wrote Enigma's screenplay, and the playwright has a well-deserved Oscar for Shakespeare in Love and a reputation for top-shelf literary adaptations. But in most of the films he's written, like The Russia House, he seems more interested in structural or symbolic tropes than providing rich character portraits. Apart from the film's comfort with code-breaking jargon, Stoppard's main contribution may have been the thorough Britishness of its dialogue, as when a colleague tells Jericho, "You're back in business, old thing."

When Enigma's climax cuts between the pencil-pushing codebreakers working around the clock and the Nazi submarines closing in on the convoy, it's almost exactly like the old board game Battleship, only on a global scale. At times the code-cracking procedures exceed the limits of the audience's comprehension, but the film always seems true to life. Enigma will appeal to viewers more interested in seeing an approximation of how events really happened rather than having them dumbed down for "dramatic effect."

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