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Enigma (2001) starstarstar

Reviewed 2002-10-13
: I'm beginning to think that Tom Stoppard (whose most recent triumph was Shakespeare in Love, 1998) is the most brilliant screenwriter working in film today. And it's not often that I start off a review by mentioning the screenwriter (who based his work on the Robert Harris Second Looknovel) above the director (the superb Michael Apted) and the actors. But there it is: for all its inevitable historical inaccuracies, Enigma is a thrilling story. And that had to be a difficult sell to a producer -- an adventure about mathematicians? -- unless, of course, that producer is rocker Mick Jagger... who just happens to own an original German "Enigma" code machine!

What makes the story so engaging, I think, is a combination of a double or triple mystery and superb acting. The mysteries begin with Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott) as the love-wasted, code-breaking wunderkind, who in March of 1943 is called back from the loony bin to Bletchley Park, the center of British code-breaking operations, to tackle a change the Germans made in the original Enigma code. It is uncertain whether his original expulsion from Bletchley was a result of overwork or an obsession with a dazzling blonde co-worker, Claire (Saffron Burrows). But according to the file clerk who was her roommate, Hester Wallace (the Kate Winslet, Dougray Scottsurreptitiously sexy Kate Winslet), Claire has unaccountably gone missing. Hence the double mystery.

Not content to leave it at that, the story adds an Inspector Javer-like intelligence officer, Wigram (Jeremy Northam), who seems always on the cusp of collaring a spy in their midst; he suspects everyone. This is edge-of-your-seat stuff, with a little sex and romance thrown in for spice, served up with crisp dialog and enough visual style to make it all perpetually pleasing. Scott looks like a vial of nitroglycerin in his edgy portrayal; Winslet portrays a believable combination of intelligence and sex appeal, so her Hester can more than hold her own against Scott's Jericho. When they team up, you know it's for more than the horizontal tango. Northam's cool command of the screen makes you want to squirm: when he fixes you in his sights you believe you're guilty, even if you haven't done anything wrong.

Enigma is a great World War II adventure, well acted, well photographed, well directed, but most of all well written.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.