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[whitespace] Dougray Scott and Jeremy Northam
Breaking the Code-Breaker: Secret service agent Wigram (Jeremy Northam, right) gives Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott) the third degree in 'Enigma.'

Code Ode

Romance blossoms among the cipher warriors in Michael Apted's 'Enigma'

By Michael S. Gant

THE WORLD WAR II thriller Enigma reveals at least one secret: the euphoniously named Saffron Burrows actually can act. She sank to the level of Matthew Lillard and Freddie Prinze Jr. as a space jockey in the abysmal Wing Commander and baited a mutant shark in Deep Blue Sea, but in Michael Apted's new film, Burrows offers tantalizing glimpses (all in flashback, except for one moment) of a luscious, conflicted femme fatale with a heart full of mystery. In 1943 at Bletchley Park near London, slender, creamy Claire Romilly (Burrows), one of the legion of women who transcribe German radio transmissions and pass them on to the code-breakers, is something of an enigma herself--an emotional cipher to the many men she entices.

No one tries harder to solve Claire's puzzle than tortured mathematician Tom Jericho (a sunken-in Dougray Scott, whose five o'clock shadow testifies to a wartime razor shortage). Jericho helped crack the Germans' tricky Enigma code but had to be sent away for a month's mental rehabilitation after Claire "fucked him into a nervous breakdown." When he returns, Jericho discovers that Claire and a fistful of vital German "intercepts" have gone missing. His desperate efforts to find her are played out in the midst of a crisis that could alter the outcome of the war: The Germans have suddenly changed their code, and their U-boats are steaming straight for a large Allied convoy in the mid-Atlantic.

Coming to Jericho's aid is Claire's plucky but decidedly unglamorous (she wears glasses to prove the point) roommate, Hester Wallace (Kate Winslet), who is quite pleased to play girl detective, sneaking around in restricted areas lifting classified documents. Can romance be far behind as Tom and Hester dash across the landscape in a convertible roadster outrunning the police? Some of their scenes recall the sexy screwball-suspense banter of Hitchcock's early spy stories, particularly The 39 Steps, but the pair do seem surprisingly cavalier about the stakes involved--as if finding Claire really is more important than the outcome of the war. On several occasions, the narrative depends upon some absurdly narrow escapes, and the usually astute Tom Stoppard, who adapted the script from Robert Harris' novel, gives Hester some anachronistic feminist complaints about the male hierarchy of code-breakers.

Dogging Tom and Hester's every step is Wigram (Jeremy Northam), a secret service agent investigating security leaks at Bletchley. Taller and better dressed than anyone around him, the rakish Wigram interrogates the rattled Jericho with a flurry of suave yet insinuating questions, even digging under his skin with a speech about how the war has liberated--not necessarily for the good--the libidos and aspirations of the lower classes. Northam is so compelling as a quasi villain that his private manipulations prove more fascinating than the secrets and surprises that drive the film to its rousing finish.

Enigma (R; 117 min.), directed by Michael Apted, written by Tom Stoppard, based on the novel by Robert Harris, photographed by Seamus McGarney and starring Dougray Scott, Kate Winslet, Saffron Burrows and Jeremy Northam, opens Friday at Camera One in San Jose and the Guild in Menlo Park.

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From the May 23-29, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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