In suburban Maryland, not far from the NSA, there exists the National Cryptologic Museum, a facility dedicated to the science and history of cryptography or "the process or skill of communicating in or deciphering secret writings or ciphers" in relation to the protection of U.S. interests.
Some of the material there involves the Allied efforts of breaking the code generated by Nazi Germany's enigma machine back in WWII that helped turn the tide of the war. Viewers may remember that being part of the plot of the action-oriented submarine flick, "U-571."
While the fictional accounts of that film, the James Bond series and the like make the gathering and deciphering of top secret info seem exciting, glamorous and even sexy, in reality it's long, hard and decidedly tedious work. That was particularly true back before the advent of computers, satellites and other technology improved eavesdropping and data collection and deciphering. Such a portrayal then, while obviously more true to the real thing, obviously probably wouldn't make for a thrilling or engaging film, or would it?
Damning the torpedoes - pun fully intended - director Michael Apted ("The World is Not Enough," "Coal Miner's Daughter") and screenwriter Tom Stoppard ("Shakespeare in Love," "The Empire of the Sun") have decided to set sail with "Enigma," a more serious look at the British effort to crack the German code and thus protect those traveling the then perilous North Atlantic. Of course, everything's not just slide rules and staid men in starched shirts. Based on Robert Harris' novel of the same name, the film relates a fictitious tale of love, mystery and conspiracy set amid the backdrop of real historical events.
The result is a generally solidly told film that isn't terribly exciting, outstanding or engaging - despite the espionage, danger and conspiracy - but should hold the interest of viewers looking for something beyond typical Hollywood spy flicks.
In "U-571," the quest was to capture one of the enigma machines - a brilliant contraption with gazillions of combinations that made its resultant code quite hard to crack - but here it's to decipher that code before it's too late. That obviously results in less action - although there is some in the third act that unfortunately gets a bit too "Hollywood-ish" for its own good - and thus the emphasis is put on the drama of it all as coupled with a love story, missing person subplot, and the discovery of a mass grave from sometime in the past.
The hook, of course, is how all of those elements tie together and impact the main plot. Fortunately, the filmmakers keep all of them in play without anything feeling convoluted or any element overshadowing the other.
That's not to say, however, that the film isn't without its faults. The biggest in relative terms is simply that the picture isn't as thrilling or even interesting as it should be or could have been, especially when considering the subject matter and sort of movie the filmmakers are apparently striving to create. None of that is meant to imply that the material is boring or assembled in some sort of slipshod fashion. Instead, it's just that the finished product lacks any sort of palpable pizzazz and that we're not allowed to care that much about the characters, their situations and/or goals, while the opposite should be true.
The filmmakers do a decent job explaining how the German's enigma machine works - without that slowing down the story or coming off as boring exposition - but the flashback material involving the missing woman - played to period femme fatale like perfection by Saffron Burrows ("Time Code," "Deep Blue Sea") - and her relationship with the protagonist isn't as successful.
It's supposed to drop hints regarding the woman's disappearance, potential involvement in some wrongdoings, and her effect on the protagonist's fragile mental state. Yet, all of that doesn't come together quite as well as one would like to see or for it to have the desired effect on the viewer. The same holds true for the whole subplot involving the discovery of a mass grave, as well as the concluding bits where everything is wrapped up rather tidily. Although we get what happened and how everything is ultimately related, it just doesn't have much dramatic punch.
The same holds true for the performances, although they're certainly solid enough to guide the viewer from start to finish. Dougray Scott ("Mission: Impossible 2," "Ever After") embodies the brilliant but troubled protagonist with the right nuances, but we never really care about his character.
Granted, making the professional side of his being interesting isn't extremely easy (what with the shots of him sitting around while his thoughts whirl about in his head), but the personal/romantic side of him should. Yet, that doesn't occur, perhaps because the flashback material with Burrows' character doesn't engage one enough to care that much.
Kate Winslet ("Iris," "Titanic") is good as usual and actually gives her character more depth than what initially appears to be there, but it's Jeremy Northam ("The Winslow Boy," "An Ideal Husband") who steals the show as a shadowy intelligence officer who perpetually seems to have something more up his sleeve than he otherwise indicates.
Overall, the film is certainly easy to watch, and it captures the look and mood of the time with perfection. Yet, one can't help but wish that it were just a bit more of the engaging and intriguing thriller that it appears and apparently keeps trying to be. "Enigma" rates as a 6 out of 10.