Enigma variation

Film - Philip Kerr spies the odd flaw in the new Bletchley thriller

Last Christmas, easily the best thing on television was the repeat showing of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. As was the case the first time I watched it, 22 years ago, it seemed to matter not a jot that the plot was as inscrutable as a Chinese crossword puzzle. At the most perplexing moments, George Smiley (Alec Guinness), that paragon of donnish calm, would take off his glasses and clean them with the air of one whose intelligence was as large as his own prostate. In time, Smiley would understand all.

It's almost a given in detective or detective-style movies of Byzantine complexity that, while we may not ourselves understand the precise exegesis of the plot, so long as our heroic protagonist seems to comprehend what's going on, then we can rest assured that some kind of rational conclusion will, eventually, be vouchsafed to us. Think of Marlowe in The Big Sleep, or J J Gittes in Chinatown, both of whom seemed equal to the task of comprehending what were almost incomprehensible storylines, and you'll see my point. Smiley is no exception. The owlish casuist and exemplar of deductive method was always Oedipus enough to solve any Sphinx-like riddle.

Enigma, a film written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Michael Apted (The World is Not Enough), is every bit as complicated as Tinker, Tailor. (I suppose this is hardly surprising, given the nature of the vaguely similar subject matter, because the story, set in wartime Bletchley Park, concerns spies, codes and code-breaking.) But it feels the lack of a Smiley figure.

Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott), a brilliant young mathematician, returns to join the rest of the codebreakers in Hut 8 at Bletchley, following an enforced leave of absence caused by nervous exhaustion. The Germans have changed the code on their Enigma cipher machines, and our young boffin must help to solve the new code, not to mention the mysterious disappearance of Claire, a beautiful blonde (Saffron Burrows) with whom our hero had been in love. In his search for Claire, he is assisted by Hester (Kate Winslet), who also works at Bletchley Park; but he is hindered by Wigram (Jeremy Northam), a member of MI5 who suspects there's a spy in Hut 8. Along the way, we are told about intercepts, cribs, blisterers, Bombe machines and possibly a whole lot else that eluded me in the same way as did elementary calculus when I was a schoolboy.

Enigma is far from being a bad film. It's just that there's too much packed in, with the result that it feels like one of those overstuffed sandwiches you get in New York delicatessens: the same ingredients might have been more easily managed between four slices of bread instead of just two. I always had the impression that, inside the 117 minutes of this better-than-average film, there was a very good four-part TV series bursting to get out.

Tom Stoppard's clever script provides much to enjoy, with most of his best lines delivered by the excellent Northam as the secret service man. But Scott (Mission Impossible:2) fails to convince as a boffin, let alone the mathematical genius he is cracked up to be. There's a little more to the daemon of genius than greasy hair, a college scarf and a weary ability to toss out answers to the Times crossword as easily as the time of day. It's not that Scott is too handsome to be convincing; frankly, he was better looking in a Tom Cruise rubber mask. It's just that there doesn't seem to be very much going on behind his dopey spaniel eyes; and his itinerant northern accent served only to strengthen my opinion that Scott's characterisation of Tom Jericho was more Alan Titchmarsh than Alan Turing.

Elsewhere, and wearing George Smiley's glasses, but otherwise looking like Olive from On the Buses (marvellous stuff), Winslet delivers her usual sturdy performance. Indeed, one might go so far as to say that she is slightly sturdier than usual, given that she is so obviously and unaccountably pregnant for the entire four-year time-frame of the movie.

I'm not sure whether Apted or the producer, Mick Jagger, is to be blamed for choosing the big cheesy score from John Barry. Back in the Seventies, I confess, I rather liked Barry. But here his James Bond-style music feels too plush, too luxurious, too romantic properly to convey the austere, even desperate, atmosphere of wartime Britain. Barry's music has always seemed more redolent of the Presidential Suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York than the corrugated privations of Hut 8.

Apted's direction is workmanlike and also, on occasion, a bit Bondish, which is to say he is good with the large set-pieces, and cars. There are lots of nice cars in Enigma; beautifully polished, even pristine, they all look like they have been lent by a classic car museum. They could have used a little more wartime dust on them, I felt. Moreover, Apted seems unable to transcend, or perhaps edit his way out of, some fairly obvious continuity problems. If you do see this film - and I recommend that you should because, mainly thanks to Stoppard, it's about twice as intelligent as the average Brit film - ask yourself this: from whence does Winslet produce the decoding machine after the scene in the barn?

It's an enigma.

Enigma (15) is released nationwide on 28 September

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the open society?