Spy Games

'Enigma' is a mystery wrapped by a puzzling director.

Enigma's director Michael Apted is sort of the anti-auteur, in that his different films seem to have been made not only by different people, but by people who would hate each other. For example, right now he has two films in theaters, the unself-consciously silly Enough, and the high-brow thriller Enigma. With the former being a Hollywood revenge fantasy starring alleged thespian Jennifer Lopez, and the latter seeming like Masterpiece Theater with the Anglophilia turned up to 11, about the only thing they have in common is that they both start with the letter "E."

Apted got his start when he took over the documentary series that began with Seven Up. This is a fabulous experimental film project which looks at the lives of a group of English citizens every seven years, starting when they were 7 years old. The most recent installment was 42: Forty Two Up, which came out in 1998. The idea of turning ordinary people into the stars of their own lives is something reeking of 1960s cinema verité, the kind of project that only a director who would prefer to be called an artist, or maybe an artiste, would undertake.

While this series has been going on, the other Michael Apted has made Hollywood monstrosities like the unforgivable Nell, the silly Bond self-parody The World Is Not Enough and the well-done but manipulative action thriller Thunderheart.

Enigma borrows the skills of the mainstream money-maker Apted and melds them with the artistic purpose of the documentarian Apted to produce something in the mediocre middle. While Enigma never insults your intelligence, it never entirely takes hold of you, either, though it does a decent enough job of being distracting during its seemingly brief 117 minutes, which is more than what's expected from a movie these days.

Enigma tells the story of the British code-breakers who single-handedly won World War II, in spite of what Americans like to think about the so-called "Invasion of Normandy." As my British friends tell it, while we Yanks were busy eating squirrel meat in our caves, they were creating the world's first super-computer, under the aegis of the leading minds of the time. Enigma doesn't stick with the facts of this situation, but instead uses the Bletchley Park locale of the code-breaking project as the setting for a spy and romance story.

Dougray Scott stars as Tom Jericho, chief of the code-breakers, who is returning to work after suffering a nervous breakdown. It seems that a beautiful woman has just dumped him, and, since Jericho is a math-geek and computer-nerd, he figured the odds that he'd ever getting any again were pretty slim, so he opted for a little rest at the home for over-stimulated minds.

When he returns to work all is not well. The beautiful woman (played by Saffron Burrows, who, coincidentally, is a beautiful woman) is missing, and a creepy intelligence officer (Jeremy Northam) is asking a lot of questions.

Jericho decides to look into the matter himself, and he enlists the aid of his ex-girlfriend's roommate Hester. Hester is played by Kate Winslet, who, shockingly, leaves her clothes on during this film. I really can't remember the last time I saw Kate Winslet in a film and didn't get to see all of her. She's naked in Iris, Quills, Holy Smoke and Titanic, and now, mysteriously, she decides to act with her clothes on. Shockingly, this has no impact on her performance, and she manages to be excellent. As someone raised on the sweet nectar of Hollywood films, I was baffled to learn that an actress could give a good performance while wearing clothes. I mean, she doesn't even strip down to a thong bikini, and yet she's completely compelling in her role, sinking entirely into the part and never giving a hint that she's "acting." How anyone can do this under the heavy burden of clothing is completely beyond me.

Dougray Scott and Jeremy Northam are also quite good, but in a stagier, less natural manner than Winslet. Still, they play off each other nicely, with Northam needling Scott and Scott maniacally trying to find out what Northam knows about the disappearance of his beloved.

The spy thriller aspects of Enigma heat up in its second half, and the effort of following the complicated plot pays off well enough in a conclusion that neatly ties together even the subtle background elements of the film. I'd like to give it an unreserved recommendation but, in spite of its smart plotting and fine performances, its not entirely successful, being a bit too reserved, in a British sort of way, to bring the audience entirely into the fold. Still, if you're tired of hack directors foisting brain-dead crap like Enough on the sensitive American public, you might want to check out Enigma, a film that's made by people who respect your intelligence.

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