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Laramie Movie Scope: Enigma

Spy thriller, whodunit, cryptography, romance film works

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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September 26, 2002 -- "Enigma" is a classy spy thriller that works on multiple levels. It is also a romance and a film about one of the toughest secret codes ever broken. The complex, demanding script tries to cover too many bases at once, but it succeeds better than one might expect.

Enigma was the name of the code system used by the Germans during World War II. It was a brilliant system, really, using a complex code machine, a set of written codes, and a series of instructions for setting up the machine differently each day. Different electrical connections and different tumbler arrangements inside the code machine created millions of different code combinations. The Germans thought the Enigma code was unbreakable. Wrong. The British, with the aid of the Polish cryptographers (Marian Rejewiski of Poland reportedly cracked the Enigma cipher in 1939), were able to get their hands on an Enigma machine and some code books. Some 12,000 of the keenest minds in the world set to work at a place called Bletchley Park, 60 miles north of London, to break the unbreakable cipher. With the aid of the world's first programmable computer, the code was broken.

The story takes place during the war. A convoy is setting out from the U.S. to England and the Soviet Union with urgently needed supplies. Two Nazi U-Boat wolf packs are lying in wait somewhere on the high seas. The Germans have switched codes and have added a fourth tumbler to their Enigma machines on the U-Boats. The code breakers at Bletchley have to start over again to break this new variant of the Enigma code. In desperation, the government brings back the man primarily responsible for breaking the original Enigma submarine code variant known as "shark," a brilliant mathematician named Tom Jericho (played by Dougray Scott of "Mission Impossible II"). The only problem is, Jericho suffered a nervous breakdown after breaking the shark code, and no one knows if he will hold up under the strain this time.

One of the reasons for Jericho's collapse was a broken romance with the beautiful Claire Romilly (Saffron Burrows of "Timecode"), a woman who also works at Bletchley. As soon as Jericho gets to Bletchley, he goes looking for Claire, but she has disappeared. No one knows where she is, not even the omnipresent security chief, Wigram (Jeremy Northam of "Gosford Park"). Wigram believes there is a security leak at Bletchley and he thinks that Jericho or Claire might be it. He keeps an eye on Jericho, hoping that Jericho might lead him to Claire. Jericho finds some coded German intercepts in Claire's apartment and he tries to decipher them, hoping they can provide a clue to Claire's disappearance. He enlists the aid of Claire's roommate, Hester Wallace (Kate Winslet of "Iris"). The more Hester and Jericho dig into the mysterious German coded messages, the deeper into danger they sink.

There are almost too many subplots in this film, but director Michael Apted ("The World is Not Enough") manages to keep it all together and moving forward at a brisk pace. Eventually, the missing woman subplot, the coded messages subplot and the spy subplot all come together nicely. The screenplay, by Tom Stoppard ("Shakespeare in Love"), based on the novel by Robert Harris, is both clever and intelligent. The stuff about how the Enigma code was broken is accurate. There is even what appears to be a real Enigma machine in the movie. The film does not concentrate a lot on the breaking of the Enigma code, but what is there is accurate.

Jeremy Northam steals the show as the smooth, manipulative security chief, while Scott and Winslet provide solid performances. Former model Saffron Burrows appears almost entirely in brief flashback scene, but she sizzles when she is on the screen. Look quick for that old Rolling Stone Mick Jagger. Mick has a cameo role as a soldier in a bar scene. Jagger is also a producer of the film (his film company is called Jagged Films, of course). Production values are very good. The war era is splendidly evoked with fine production design, art direction, set decoration, costume design and cinematography. This film rates a B. For more on the Enigma code, see the excellent Nova PBS documentary film called "Decoding Nazi Secrets," or visit the cryptography links below. For more information on cryptography, click on this link to the official home page of Bletchley Park. Here is another link to information on World War II cryptography.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2002 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)