No Mystery about “Enigma”

OK, this entry is a little behind schedule — I’ve been buried under work the last week, which has kept me from posting — but I definitely want to share this with you all.

Over the 4th of July weekend, I saw a great movie. It’s currently playing in art houses only, which is a shame, as it was more compelling and provocative than most of the so-called “thrillers” Hollywood shoves at us. It’s called Enigma, and if you’re a fan of well-acted, intelligent drama, it’s worth taking the trouble to find somewhere near you that’s showing it.

“Enigma” is set in Bletchley Park, the British codebreaking facility where (with the aid of a deciphering machine stolen from the Germans by the Polish underground) England’s top mathematical minds cracked the supposedly uncrackable code (named “Enigma”) the German Navy used to communicate with its far-flung fleet of U-boats. The efforts of the Bletchley whiz kids saved the lives of untold numbers of Allied sailors, won the Battle of the Atlantic, and very probably turned the tide of the war in Europe.

(Oh, and in the process, one of the Bletchley Park bunch — the amazingly brilliant young Dr. Alan Turing — managed to invent the general-purpose computer. Since he was gay, however, for his efforts the British government rewarded him after the war by revoking his security clearances and persecuting him legally until he committed suicide in 1954. Such are the prizes reaped by great minds who dare to offend the ignorant.)

“Enigma” the movie is a startlingly good piece of historical fiction, following a fictional Bletchley codebreaker, Tom Jericho (played by Dougray Scott) who returns to the Park after suffering a nervous breakdown at the hands of his inconstant lover (played by Saffron Burrows). When he returns, however, he finds that she has disappeared, and sets out to find her with the aid of her flatmate and friend, Hester (Kate Winslet). But the disappearance has not gone unnoticed by the authorities, among them diligent investigator Wigram (the invaluable Jeremy Northam), who seeks to plug any hole in the Park’s security — because if the Germans find out their codes have been broken, they will change them, and the balance of power in the Atlantic will slip back into Hitler’s hands.

The performances from “Enigma”‘s cast are uniformly outstanding, and the filmmakers balance Tom and Hester’s personal crisis against a number of difficult moral issues. For example, if the only way to break the German codes is to send men unknowingly to their deaths — to send Allied ships blindly into the Atlantic, betting that when the Nazis discover them they will signal their HQ and give their cipher away — is it worth it? Do the lives of these few men mean more, or less, than the potential for saving other men’s lives once the codes are cracked? Too often the movies reduce these kinds of moral dilemmas to trite plot points, but “Enigma” honestly shows the way different men react to these crises in different ways — and the frustration those men can feel, when they realize that how they feel about the issue means nothing when orders have been handed down.

Anyway, take my advice — go and see this before it disappears from theaters completely. You’ll thank me.