Saturday, October 6, 2012


               “Enigma” is a film by Michael Apted that was released in 2001.  It was partly meant to be an answer to “U-571”.   It is based the novel by Robert Harris.  The book and film are highly fictionalized accounts of the British code-breaking efforts at Bletchley Park in WWII.  Those efforts were based on captured Enigma machines.  Brilliant cryptanalysts worked to read German military messages.  In the movie, those messages involve routing u-boats to intercept a major convoy.

                The movie opens with Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott) reluctantly returning to Betchley Park after a nervous breakdown involving being jilted by beautiful fellow geek Claire (Saffron Burrows).   Jericho had earlier broken the “Shark” code when the Germans updated to a four rotor Enigma machine.  It doesn’t take long for Jericho to try to find Claire, but she is missing.  The movie becomes a mystery as Jericho attempts to find out what happened to Claire.  He finds evidence in her flat that she has been passing top secret information to someone and this may be connected to her disappearance.  His amateur sleuthing is aided by Claire’s friend Hester (Kate Winslet).  Will romance bloom?  Duh!

                Interwoven with the personal story is the bigger picture of saving the convoy by rebreaking the code.  The clock is ticking.  While Tom focuses with his comrades on doing their jobs, Hester uses an Enigma machine that she and Tom “borrowed” to read the intercepts they found in Claire’s room.  It turns out that Claire was in possession of a list of Polish officers executed by the Soviets in Katyn Forest.  The British government (represented by an agent named Wigram) wants to cover up the Katyn Massacre because it would damage their relationship with their allies, the Russians.  Claire passed the information on to another cryptanalyst nicknamed “Puck” (Nikolaj Waldau) who is Polish and had a brother whose name is on the list.  This humane gesture apparently backfired because the incensed Puck turns coat to rat out Betchley Park to the Germans to get revenge against Stalin.

                Jericho goes after Puck, but he’s not alone.  MI-5 agent Wigram (Jeremy Northam) is on to both of them.  It’s a cat and mouse game.  Puck escapes to Scotland where he hopes to hook up with a u-boat that will take him and his information to Germany.

                As far as historical accuracy, the movie is fine in depicting how Betchley Park operated and how the Enigma machine worked.  The cryptanalysts were probably not the heterogeneous characters as depicted in the film, but that is to be expected and makes the movie less bland.  In actuality, the Jericho character is based on a far from boring man named Alan Turing who was a big contributor to the code-breaking effort.  Turing was not your stereotypical geek because he was a homosexual who was later prosecuted for his sexual orientation and chemically castrated.  Not exactly the type to fall for Claire and Hester, but possibly the type to structure a more interesting movie around. 

                The movie is set in April, 1943 which is inappropriate for the secondary storyline of rebreaking the “Shark” code to save the convoy.  In reality, the German switch to a four rotor machine occurred in 1942 and had been solved for good by the time frame of the movie.  As far as the Katyn Massacre, it occurred in April and May of 1940 in the Katyn Forest in Poland.  The NKVD (the Soviet secret police) executed around 22,000 Polish officers.  The orders came from Stalin.  The movie’s Claire list is fictional, but it is true that the Churchill government knew who the villains were and yet supported the Soviet lies that the Nazis perpetrated the atrocity and he suppressed any contrary information.  The movie dramatizes a race against time to save a large convoy by solving the four rotor code, but that is not based on any actual situation.  The implication that a decision will have to be made whether to warn the convoy and thus jeopardize the code-breaking is intriguing although not really played out.  It is possibly based on the supposed decision by Churchill to allow the bombing of Coventry without warning the city.  This legend has been refuted, however.  The movie would have been more interesting if it focused on a fictional dilemma of “warn or not warn” instead of a romance/espionage plot.

                I mentioned that the movie was partly an answer to “U-571”.  If you are not familiar with that controversy, in this American movie the U.S. Navy is credited with acquiring the first Enigma machine.  In reality, the British deserve that credit.  The British were justifiably critical of that plot.  Ironically, “Enigma” can be similarly criticized.  Although briefly implied, the movie overlooks the fact that the Betchley Park operation got off the ground originally due to efforts by the Polish Cypher Bureau.  The Poles passed on their ground-breaking successes to the British.  That’s ironic, here’s what’s disgusting.  The movie (and book) incredibly makes the main villain a Pole!  At least “U-571” did not compound the offense by having a British member of the crew be a traitor.

                The movie is fairly entertaining.  The acting is satisfactory and the cast is appealing.  Special mention must be made of Kate Winslet who plays Hester as mousy.  She is not beautiful in this movie.  The chemistry with Scott is fine.  The suspense is tame, but thankfully the code-breaking is not headache inducing.  The movie just could have been a lot better and a lot more thought-provoking.  And by the way, this is not a war movie.

Rating – C+
the trailer
the full movie
TRAILER:  Pretty good.  Gives you an idea of the plot.  Overplays the action, of course.  The movie is not as fast-paced as implied.  B+
POSTER:  Nicely done.  Has the four main characters.  The convoy is a good touch.  A


  1. I always wanted to watch this again as I enjoyed it a lot when I first watched it. I even thought about including the book in the readalong and bought it.
    It's not a Top 100 Cracker but as far as romances go it's not too trite and I agree, it's an appealing cast.

  2. the war movie buffOctober 8, 2012 at 7:10 PM

    I guess now that you mention the romance angle, it is the best war romance I have seen in a while. Not that I watch a lot of them.

  3. A better Robert Harris book was Fatherland which is an excellent alternative history novel. Good thriller with a murder and an investigator in an alternative world where Hitler won the war. I remember it was made as a movie years ago by HBO with Rutgar Hauer (lousy spelling of course). Fairly good movie, but didn't have the detail of the book. Harris also wrote the more recent The Ghost Writer filmed by bad boy on the move Polanski. One hell of a dull movie there. Like Phillip Dick Hollywood seems to like filming Harris. With mixed results.


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