Hackwork has its risks. Although often a necessity of the movie business, it isn’t conducive to legacy-building. Ask Michael Apted. The director was once best known for his Up series of documentaries, tracing the progress of a group of British children from school to middle age. But those films (six in all) have been rather lost in the shuffle of Apted’s more recent mainstream pursuits, multiplex entertainments such as Thunderheart (1992), Extreme Measures (1996), and, most notably, the James Bond film, The World Is Not Enough (1999). Critics, unsurprisingly, have not been kind to this record.
But Apted is an honest man. In his director’s commentary for the DVD release of his film Enigma (2001), he lays out the realities of the movie business, at least as they apply to his journeyman’s career. Enigma, based on Robert Harris’ best-selling novel about British code-breakers during World War II, was years in the making. The film rights were originally purchased by the odd-duck pairing of Mick Jagger and Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels (Jagger, apparently, is a World War II memorabilia buff, an image that should remind everyone that the era and ethos of Gimme Shelter are 2000 Light Years from now). Paramount Pictures then dropped the picture, forcing the producers and Apted, since attached to the project, to spend time in search of financing.
So, Apted did the Bond film (the one featuring Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist). Following, as he says, he suddenly had box office clout for the first time in his long career, and that was enough to attract investors. Enigma had a pulse again. According to Apted, part of the difficulty in finding backers stemmed from his determination to make the film British through-and-through. He would brook no Americans attempting English accents. Gwyneth Paltrow need not apply.
You see, there were scores to settle. The plot of Enigma concerns a Nazi encryption machine of the same name. The securing and reverse engineering of this device helped the Allies turn the tide in the War. In 2000, an American action film, U-571, claimed that U.S. forces snagged the machine. That wasn’t true. In reality, an Enigma was smuggled out of pre-invasion Poland and cracked by British technicians in one of the most massive and secret undertakings of the War. The details of the code-breaking operation, hosted at a site north of London, weren’t made public until the 1970s.
Apted was interested in setting the record straight and, perhaps, restoring a bit of glory to his native land’s history in the process. In the film, England during the War seems idyllic. Throughout Apted’s commentary, he speaks of his intent to make the country appear “beautiful” and, consequently, we’re spared shots of bombed-out London or casualties of any kind. (When an American supply convoy is fired upon by a German U-boat, it’s the least convincing sequence in the movie. Ugliness seems to have no place here, something more than unusual for a war film.) His England is one inhabited by steely-eyed, stiff-spined intellectuals, who go about the business of saving the world with a quick nod and a staccato “Right, then.”
Proper credit for the British role in winning the War seems to be on everyone’s mind. Interviewed for the DVD, Harris, the author of Enigma, points out that the code-breaking operation rivaled both the U.S. Manhattan Project and the Nazi rocket-building machine in scope and technological prowess, while suggesting that “history” has short-shrifted it in comparison. The Yanks in the film, when appearing at all, come off as impatient warmongers, with little interest in complex thought. It doesn’t take much extrapolation to reposition these sentiments for today’s world. Eternally sensitive about appearing as puppets of America, Britons have winced as the Tony Blair-BBC row over the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has played out on the global stage.
In that vein, Apted says he was determined to cast a Brit in the lead role of crack code-breaker Tom Jericho. He found his man in Scottish actor Dougray Scott, who was recruited by Apted as much for his appearance in Mission Impossible 2 as anything else. (Again, this was for satiating the international investors, who, ironically, turned out to be largely German.) When English siren Kate Winslet signed on, Apted was so excited to have her that he pledged to shoot around her pregnancy. He filmed her scenes before any others and costumed her in ways to conceal her bulk. The DVD commentaries frame the decision to have Winslet play her character, Hester Wallace, as a frumpy, glasses-wearing everywoman as an artistic one. But given Winslet’s condition, it’s hard to conceive the choice as being anything other than an accommodation.
Ultimately, Apted succeeds in his self-claimed endeavor too well. The picture comes off as so steeped in English can-do-itiveness and repressed sexual tension, there’s scarcely a pulse-quickening moment. As a thriller, it teases instead. What heat is to be found emanates from Jeremy Northam as Wigram, a fedora-wearing, slick-suited “spymaster” who hounds, intimidates, and manipulates the beleaguered and tweedy Jericho. He brings such verve, gusto, and smarminess that he appears to be almost… American. This seems related to the plot point wherein Wigram steadfastly refuses to see a certain, somewhat hidden truth, despite overwhelming evidence. He’s too puffed up with patriotism.
Moreover, it is a woman recruited by Wigram who seduces Tom Jericho in the early moments of the film, an act that initiates his tumble into international intrigue. Could Apted be saying something about his own country’s eagerness to rush into bed? (Or his own relationship with Hollywood?) Does Lady Liberty make for an irresistible femme fatale? In the film’s closing scene, Jericho embraces Hester, now radiantly swollen with child. The War is over. The world is safe. Even better, a British man has come to his senses. Perhaps Apted was the right man for James Bond, after all.