I could have walked out of Enigma. Not in
anger -- not in that
state of congested indignation that sometimes forces cinemagoers to their feet,
huffing and puffing and clawing for their coats in the darkness -- but through
lack of concern. Which surprised me, because almost any film set in England in
1943 has, for me, an automatic power and pull: wartime England, my God, I am
(aren't you?) rank with false nostalgia for it -- with implanted memories of the
brave cities and the murmuring countryside, the voices of leaders on the radio,
the turned-up trousers and the coal smoke, the pluck, the pep, the upper lip!
Further, Enigma is about the code breakers of Bletchley Park, the quiet
wizards of decryption who sat in stuffy rooms 60 miles outside of London and
burrowed into Hitler's orders for his U-boats, changing the course of the war at
sea and thereby saving uncounted thousands of lives. Heroes all. Tom Stoppard
wrote the screenplay (adapted from a novel by Robert Harris) and Kate Winslet,
Albion's treasure, has a starring role. So what went wrong?
Here's the story: Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott), high-IQ shut-in and champion
code buster, is returning to Bletchley after a breakdown. Has he recovered?
Hardly. Muddy of eye and heavy of lip, his long coats and scarves flapping around
him like a loose and monstrous epidermis, Jericho is a step away from catatonia.
A beautiful woman -- Claire, a clerk at Bletchley -- deranged his beautiful mind,
leaving him prey to flashbacks, abrupt snoozes, and slurred motions of the heart.
Now Claire has vanished, taking with her some of the top-level secrets that
Jericho blabbed to her in his passion. One or two of these secrets appear to have
been leaked to the German High Command, whose codes -- previously transparent to
the Bletchley geniuses thanks to their possession of a primitive computer called
Enigma, retrieved from a sinking U-boat -- have suddenly become unbreakable
Is Claire a spy? A Mata Hari? Did she use Jericho? The best part of Michael
Apted's directing is in this doubtfulness as Jericho -- obsessed, wallowing in
fugues -- goes over his memories of Claire and slowly decodes them. The images --
Claire dancing in her room or flying blondly in the passenger seat of his
car -- have a gauzy, unfinished quality, occasionally pierced by understanding.
the famous whirring "thinking machine" Jericho has built at Bletchley, his mind
ticks through the options, the zillion permutations. He enlists the help of
Claire's ordinary-but-delicious best friend, Hester Wallace (Winslet), and mounts
a bootleg intelligence operation, pinching files and creeping into restricted
And here is the worst part of Apted's directing, as he tries in vain to whip
up a pulsing thriller out of these essentially cerebral elements, these two
non-heroes having a brainstorm. Perhaps, in the age of Swordfish, we
applaud his radically undeveloped sense of suspense, his very gentle and almost
pastoral notion of what might be exciting. The adrenal gland, so readily abused
by other filmmakers, takes here a well-earned breather. Low-speed car chases take
place down mustard-hedged lanes; Jericho, nifty at the wheel of his vintage
motor, gives the police the slip. "Bravo, Mr. Jericho!" hurrahs Hester over the
racing engine. "I think under the circumstances, Miss Wallace," he says, full of
daring, "we might risk first names!" (This sort of tweedy banter belongs, surely,
in a different film, and one not written by Stoppard.) Later Jericho and Hester,
with the police still in tepid pursuit, are hiding in a country barn running
combinations through a purloined Enigma machine. If they get caught they're in
for it! So knobs are twiddled and gears cranked in a light lather of urgency
while outside we see a police car closing in across a wet field. Capture seems
certain for our plucky duo -- but wait! The police car is stuck in the mud.
Saved from this vision of menace, this doom drawing near: an antique car toiling
sadly in the flooded ruts of a farm track.
Occasionally something flashier and more current is attempted. One sequence
cuts back and forth between events at Bletchley and the prelude to a fierce
in the Atlantic Ocean. The tension builds nicely as the code breakers struggle
with incoming gibberish and the U-boats converge in darkness on a defenseless
convoy, until one of the senior Bletchley boffins grips his pipe between anxious
jaws and says (the camera tight upon him, last frame of the scene), "Now
the wolves are gathering ... ." We can feel what Apted is going for here, the
register -- call it Hollywood Homeric -- he is seeking. In a blockbuster such as
Crimson Tide or The Hunt for Red October this would have been the
one for the trailer -- a close-up of Gene Hackman, his face brutally involved,
voice coarse with power: "Now the wolves are gathering ... ." As it is, in Enigma
all we hear is the missed contact, the little sigh of the punch going wide.
Things quicken briefly when Jericho, close to solving the riddle -- the
enigma (aha!) -- of Claire, boards a northbound train. Travel! Velocity!
Espionage on trains is a noble tradition, and echoes of Alfred Hitchcock's The
Thirty-Nine Steps fill the air. But then Jeremy Northam sits down in the
carriage and delivers such a paralyzing blurb of explication -- which agent
for whom, and what it all means -- such a dense clump of plot-speak, that the
moments later squeals to a sudden halt, infarcted in its tracks. This is a bad
moment for Northam, who is otherwise the most interesting actor in the film. His
character, the spy catcher Wigram, slides into rooms like an odor, horribly
alert, with a set of manners so acutely tuned they are a kind of paranoia. "What
a lovely house you have," he says to Jericho's busybody landlady, casting a cold
eye on her tasteless decor. "And hunting prints ... . Do you hunt?" The
gapes, certain only of the fact that she is being (in every sense) outclassed.
Only Northam could pull this off, this dark politesse from which nothing escapes.
To him go the best lines: "They were seeing each other, oh yes. They were seeing
each other's brains out." Wigram, I think, needs his own film.
James Toback's Harvard Man is an interesting
diversion. Toback, who as a
Harvard student in the mid-1960s got hold of some weapons-grade LSD and tripped
for eight days straight, almost unhinging himself for good, has apparently long
cherished the idea of making a film that gets to grips with this encounter. Odd,
then, that Harvard Man should feel so half-baked -- but this is Toback's
style: haste, greed, and seemingly accidental illuminations. His films are sticky little
laboratories, with few codes of practice. In the last one, Black and
White, he flailed inexpertly through the subject of race relations, pushing
every button he could find, tossing together such diverse ingredients as Robert
Downey Jr. and Mike Tyson (the former trying to seduce the latter was one of the
film's prize scenes), and producing -- almost randomly -- some uniquely exotic
(Mike Tyson giving Robert Downey an open-handed slap that almost takes his head
off -- where else are you going to see that?). Harvard Man is tidier than
Black and White, more plotted. Gifted philosophy student Alan Jensen
(Adrian Grenier), awash in sex, pot, and existential speculation, is drawn into a
gambling intrigue by his cheerleader girlfriend (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who is
also the daughter of a local Mafia don. If Alan throws his next basketball game
(he plays for the Harvard Crimson) he will make enough money to buy a new home
for his parents back in Kansas, who have just been unhoused by a tornado.
Meanwhile he sleeps with his philosophy teacher, who hands down saucy lessons in
Kierkegaardian dread, and gobbles acid-dunked sugar cubes on airplanes. Naturally
the FBI must involve itself.
It's a ludicrous story line, but story is not the point: Plot is always naked
contrivance for Toback, a mere structure to house his experiments. Alan's trip is
of course the centerpiece of the movie, and it's well done -- a nasty fun-house
of faces, voices, and white-light obviousness of the sort that finds a young man
standing on the banks of the Charles River and ranting through his own private
Finnegans Wake: "River run, run river run, on, onward run!" (To cap it all
off, Al Franken appears, playing himself, his spectacles like two friendly
tractor beams.) Grenier, rather sleepy when acting sober, comes alive here,
over-alive in fact, with stimulation ricocheting around the points of his skinny
frame. And after a shimmering German doctor, antidote in hand, delivers a
beautiful sermon on the fragility of consciousness, we have only the daftly
dangling plot-ends to tie up -- the gambling, the sex, the FBI; we're haunted by
the ineffable, trapped in the clockwork. Be careful, hums the message,
which is worth any amount of silliness.