Movie Information

Genre: Spy Thriller
Director: Michael Apted
Starring: Dougray Scott, Kate Winslet, Jeremy Northam, Saffron Burrows
Rated: R

I’m not sure that Michael Apted’s Enigma — the first film from Mick Jagger’s Jagged Productions — quite exonerates him for Enough (which was actually made later), but it at least proves he hasn’t forgotten how to make a movie with wit, intelligence and solid craftsmanship. With a strong screenplay by Tom Stoppard, a first-rate cast, impeccable production design by John Beard, and wonderfully clever costume design by the late Shirley Russell (who performed much the same feat on Apted’s Agatha in 1979), Enigma is his finest film in years. Based on a novel by Robert Harris (Fatherland), Enigma is the sort of movie usually touted as a “thinking man’s” spy film, which often means that the viewer can expect to be faced with a complex plot and characters, minimal action scenes and gadgetry, and greater moral weight than is found in your average James Bond flick. If the film is British — as they usually are, and this one is — it will all be filtered through a kind of ironic detachment. Enigma qualifies on all these levels and adds something more to the mix by being structured with a constantly shifting time-frame, effortlessly moving between past and present. It doesn’t entirely work — the lead character often seems to be able to disappear from his official work for incredible stretches of time without it ever becoming an issue — but enough of it works and all of it is sufficiently entertaining and intelligent to forgive that which doesn’t. Set in wartime England, Enigma tells the fact-based story of the British codebreakers at a secret enclave in Bletchley Park trying to crack the Nazi’s “Enigma” code. That probably sounds a bit on the dullish side, but the fact-based story also boasts a fictional side, which makes it all considerably more entertaining. Dougray Scott plays Tom Jericho, a not-entirely-stable math genius, who first broke the code, but was marshaled out soon after when an ill-fated love affair left him a burnt-out case. As soon as the Germans change the code, Jericho is brought back — and his past comes with him. The girl who jilted him, Claire Romilly (Saffron Burrows), has unaccountably disappeared in the meantime — a fact that looks even more suspect when he finds German codes hidden under the floor of her bedroom. Combining forces with Claire’s roommate Hester (a deliberately frumpy Kate Winslet), Jericho sets out to solve the mystery of Claire’s disappearance. All of this is further complicated by the presence of the dapper, cynical, slightly smarmy British Intelligence agent, Wigram (Jeremy Northam), who is watching Jericho’s every move — and obviously knows more than he’s willing to let on. Script and performances are never less than compelling. Stoppard’s dialogue is frequently witty, as when Hester’s supervisor tells her that with her glasses off she doesn’t “look half-bad,” and she matter-of-factly responds, “With my glasses off, nor do you.” Late in the film, the previously polite, euphemism-inclined Jericho blurts out a discovery he’s made about his missing love, “They were having an …” whereupon the acerbic Wigram stops him, playing on Jericho’s own usually reticent style — “They were seeing each other. In fact, they were seeing each other’s brains out.” Similarly, the story’s seemingly nonstop twists and turns are intelligently presented. Apted’s direction captures it all with style and precision — and an almost hallucinatory sense of the various time-frames melding into each other (compare the film’s opening to its mirror-image closing). It’s top-notch entertainment for those of us looking for something a little more intelligent and challenging than Mr. Deeds. Trivia fans take note: Watch closely to catch producer Jagger as a soldier in a bar.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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