Despite a few flurries of narrative fuzziness, “Enigma” ultimately emerges as an intelligent, involving and intricately plotted thriller with respectable theatrical prospects and strong homevid potential. Set primarily in and around Bletchley Park, the top-secret H.Q. for British code-breakers during World War II, pic is sufficiently compelling in a timeless fashion to interest even ticket buyers who weren’t yet alive when the Vietnam War ended. Once again, director Michael Apted (“Gorky Park,” “Extreme Measures”) demonstrates his sure hand at crafting smartly suspenseful entertainment.
Adapted by Tom Stoppard from a well-regarded novel by Robert Harris, “Enigma” revolves around an unlikely hero: Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott), a brilliant but psychologically vulnerable mathematician. Through flashbacks and expository dialogue, pic fixes Jericho as a key player in cracking the code used by the German navy that communicated with Enigma cipher machines, devices that resemble a hybrid of manual typewriter and telephone switchboard. Unfortunately, the stress of his work — and his rejection by co-worker and ex-lover Claire Romilly (Saffron Burrows) — drove Jericho to a nervous breakdown.
Plot begins in March 1943, as Jericho returns from his enforced leave of absence to the Bletchley Park complex north of London. Despite the serious misgivings of his autocratic supervisor (Robert Pugh), Jericho is recalled to service because the Nazis have changed their Enigma transmission code at a singularly inconvenient time: Three massive Allied shipping convoys have just left New York, loaded with supplies to sustain the British war effort.
Shortly after his return, Jericho learns that Claire has inexplicably disappeared. Worse, he finds undeciphered transcripts of intercepted German navy signals in her house. Jericho can’t help suspecting the worst, especially when he’s heard rumors of a German agent working inside Bletchley. Even so, he’s still hopelessly, helplessly in love, and, despite his shaky mental state, he tries to use his problem-solving expertise to find her before she’s located by Wigram (Jeremy Northam), a British intelligence agent on the trail of the alleged mole.
Claire’s housemate, Hester Wallace (Kate Winslet), another Bletchley employee, reluctantly agrees to expedite Jericho’s investigation, and their collaboration brings them progressively closer. But Jericho remains obsessed with finding Claire, even as he takes part in a frantic effort to break the new Enigma code.
Imaginatively reconfiguring a couple of scenes from Harris’ novel, Apted and Stoppard effectively intercut between the desperate maneuverings of the Bletchley Park team and Hester’s solo attempt to decipher the coded messages pilfered by Claire. The true importance of the info gleaned by Claire only gradually becomes clear, however, somewhat diminishing the dramatic impact of her discovery.
Pic also stumbles during sporadic flashbacks that tend to confuse almost as much as they illuminate. Right from the start, “Enigma” demands close attention. Auds unwilling or unable to make the extra effort will be left scratching their heads. Indeed, even viewers who focus intently on every scene may find it challenging to connect the dots during a couple of key transitions.
Overall, “Enigma” plays fair and square while generating suspense with its twisty plot. And while it requires a generous suspension of disbelief to accept a few action-hero gestures by the deeply troubled Jericho, Scott is persuasive and compelling enough as his complex character to drive the narrative.
Without trying to turn “Enigma” into a self-conscious, standard-issue Hitchcock homage, Apted and his players slyly evoke the spirit of the Master of Suspense’s early British thrillers. As the subtly intimidating and smugly sardonic Wigram, Northam often appears to be channeling the Cary Grant of “Notorious” and “Suspicion.” And Winslet’s winning portrayal of the plucky Hester deserves flattering comparisons to renderings of similarly resourceful femme characters in “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes.” (It should be noted that Winslet — bespectacled and unabashedly zaftig — looks appropriately unglamorous. Tabloid gossips and snippy critics will doubtless make snide remarks about her weight.)
The only weak link in the “Enigma” ensemble is Burrows. It’s not that she does anything glaringly wrong. It’s just that she doesn’t have enough dazzling screen presence and old-fashioned glam-packed allure to allow the audience to fully appreciate the double meaning of the title.
Tech values are splendid. Of particular note is production designer John Beard’s replication of the massive “thinking machine” — a ’40s forerunner of today’s mainframe computers — used by the Bletchley Park team to decipher Enigma transmissions. By the way, pic briefly but pointedly emphasizes that, regardless of what you might have been told in “U-571,” U.S. forces had nothing whatsoever to do with the initial capture of Enigma machines from German U-boats.