There comes a point in Michael Apted’s Enigma — more than one, actually — where Jeremy Northam shows up and you feel grateful. At these moments, the film, which is mostly a plotty and deeply self-admiring tale about British code-breakers during WWII, turns funny, even witty. This shift is a function of Northam’s wholly refreshing incongruity. It’s as if he’s acting in another movie, quite different from the one in which everyone else is trundling about.
Much of this trundling takes place in Bletchley Park, a.k.a. Station X, a top secret site outside London where all varieties of nerds, Bolsheviks, and math whizzes work at breaking down German communications, including those encoded by the famous Enigma machine (one of which is kept in a glass case at Bletchley, after having been captured during a battle). Most of the British workers are dedicated to national service, and a few are competitive with each other as well as the Nazis. For the most part, though, Bletchley Park is like a camp for eggheads — they live in dorm rooms, ride their bicycles to work, take tea in a cafeteria, and answer to stuffy headmaster-types.
On some level, Enigma, scripted by Tom Stoppard and based on a novel by Robert Harris, is less about the war, then, than it is about the tensions and suspicions that war breeds at home. This is where Northam comes in, as he plays an interloper to the Bletchley Park community, a secret service agent named Wigram, looking into the recent disappearance of a lovely young code-recorder, Claire (Saffron Burrows). His questions make people nervous, though they all rather suspect that Claire ran off with a lover — she was “loose,” as suggested in flashbacks, in which she dances in her slip, smokes cigarettes, and wears seamed stockings.
Wigram’s investigation appears to be focused on the most gifted decoder- guy, a heroically monikered Cambridge mathematician, Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott). Seems that Tom is just returning from a leave of absence — quite against a sniffy superior’s better judgment — because the Germans have cooked up a new, apparently unbreakable code, and by gosh, he’s the best breaker the Brits have got. The official story attending Tom’s return is that his previous work with a horrendously difficult code system called Shark drove him over the edge. But Wigram has other ideas, namely, that Tom had a disastrous romance with Claire and collapsed when she rejected him. He smiles, “It wasn’t really Shark that made you crazy, was it?” Tom blanches.
Several flashbacks suggest that this rejection scene was fairly operatic, that Tom wailed a bit, that Claire marched away over a (could it be symbolic?) bridge, teetering on her high heels. If you believe some of these flashbacks — which you are by no means compelled to do, this being a Stoppard script, full of disingenuous cues — even offering to leak secret info to her, so as to prove his worthiness. In other words, Tom is a bit of a wonky guy, undone by his first full-fledged love affair.
But it soon becomes clear that Wigram isn’t exactly wed to his conjecture that Tom shot his info-wad while in a romantic panic (though he does mock Tom mercilessly, observing of his “glamorous” job that “Girls go weak at the knees at the thought of the size of your brains!”). Maybe, Wigram suggests, Tom had a hand in Claire’s demise — if she is so demised. Or perchance she was a spy and willfully used Tom. Dear Wigram is full of potential interpretations of the meager the meager facts (no body, no evidence of foul play, no obvious information leakage to the Germans), and he often seems quite unconcerned which one is correct. He’s more the Columbo-sort of investigator who lets fly with theories to see where they land and whom they upset.
Given that Tom is so easily upsettable at this time (he sees no humor in Claire’s vanishing, because he imagines that she’s run off with another fellow), he makes a good target. And Wigram makes the most of his discomfort, perhaps because he believes Tom guilty, perhaps because he just likes to torment him. Wigram is poised and Tom is sooo pasty.
Distressingly, Wigram actually isn’t around very much; maybe he has other movies to disrupt. Fortunately, Claire’s roommate Hester (Kate Winslet) is still working at Bletchley, and though she’s not quite the firecracker that Claire is in Tom’s flashbacks (wearing seamed stockings, dancing in her slip, drinking and generally causing trouble), she’s certainly a live wire compared to Tom. Hester’s energy alternates between Girl Detective Overdrive and a subtler, more mature insightfulness, but before you think too highly of her, consider that she develops an inexplicable affection for Tom. This means that Enigma dallies with their imminent romance, which, while not especially surprising, is sometimes appealingly awkward, and Winslet is, as ever, undauntable.
Amid all this melodrama, the immediate, pseudo-historical crisis almost gets lost: Tom’s current mission has to do with a fleet of Allied merchant ships, carrying some 10,000 passengers, that are headed directly into enemy U boat territory (apparently the code-crackers really missed their buddy Tom). He and his fellows must figure out what the Germans are planning, save the ships, and discover the presumed spy in the Bletchley ranks. And oh yes, if he has a minute, in between his painful and inconsistent flashbacks of Claire, he means to track her down as well. They’re not quite able to do all these things, but you can be sure that Tom gets to the bottom of the Claire mystery.
But while Tom spends much of the film being depressed, obsessive, and annoyingly schoolboyish, Hester never quite gives in to his lack of spunk, eventually rousing him to some semblance of action. Though he doesn’t precisely launch into Tom Clancy-sized heroics, though he does a bit of improbable leaping and gallivanting by film’s end. Thankfully, Wigram makes yet another illogical and self-loving appearance, adroitly and enjoyably undermining Tom’s big adventure.