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The math gets too complicated in this British war film

Friday, May 17, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

We all know some of those truths about life that one learns only at the movies. Cops are most likely to die in the line of duty during the week before they retire. Cars that go over a cliff always explode in midair. All grocery bags contain a loaf of French bread.


RATING: R for a sex scene and language.

PLAYERS: Dougray Scott, Kate Winslet, Jeremy Northam, Saffron Burrows.

DIRECTOR: Michael Apted.

WEB SITE: www.enigma-



Here's a new one: Babes really dig mathematical geniuses, especially if they are rowing with one oar.

You doubt me? How about Harvard hottie Minnie Driver falling for blue-collar brawler Matt Damon in "Good Will Hunting"? Russell Crowe plays a schizophrenic in "A Beautiful Mind" and still ends up with Jennifer Connelly.

In the British film "Enigma," now at the Manor and Denis theaters, Dougray Scott -- looking a little like the poor man's Crowe -- portrays a mathematician who helps the Allies win World War II by cracking the infamous Enigma code, the seemingly impenetrable Nazi cipher.

He has an eye for figures, all right. He has a nervous breakdown after falling in love with a woman played by Saffron Burrows, who adds up in all the right places. When he recovers and is recalled to codebreaking duty, he finds she has disappeared. So he enlists her roommate to find out what happened. The roommate is played by Kate Winslet.

Is it too late to change my major? I should have known from the movies that journalists never get the girl, merely a stool at the bar.

"Enigma" proves a bit of a puzzle itself. Based on the 1995 novel by Robert Harris, the movie grafts a fictional love story onto a real-life thriller, the effort to break the Enigma code, which was generated by a machine that could create 150 quintillion possible combinations.

In the movie, the Allies are in a tizzy because the Nazis have just changed their code. Three convoys are heading across the Atlantic with tons of materiel, and now the Allies have no way of knowing where the German U-boats are waiting.

Scott's character, Tom Jericho, cracked the earlier code and has been called back to decipher the new one, although he has no illusions about the difficulty. But he's also searching for Claire Romilly (Burrows) -- as is a smoothly cynical, insinuating spy hunter named Wigram (Jeremy Northam). Jericho himself is not above suspicion in Wigram's eyes.

Jericho learns her disappearance may have something to do with some code papers she filched. Claire's roommate, Hester Wallace, reluctantly helps him find out what they are. And so the two mysteries converge -- the key to Enigma and the answers about what happened to Claire.

But in the end, codes are mathematics -- to some, truth at its purest. People are harder to crack. So is "Enigma," which boasts a screenplay by Tom Stoppard. He uses language with the precision of a codemaster and the dazzling technique of a magician.

The problem is that, like Jericho, he tries to do too much at once. The two plot lines never really converge either thematically or metaphorically. In fact, the explanation of Claire's stolen code papers leads us to a side track and to a series of false endings. We may feel as overloaded as the code breakers by the time it's all explained.

Director Michael Apted started out in the documentary field and has gone on to make mainstream films ranging from "Coal Miner's Daughter" to "The World Is Not Enough." His movie is as crowded and unwieldy as the screenplay.

Scott makes for an unusually dour and often clumsy hero. But his ability to figure out things keeps surprising Wigram, whom Northram plays with the smug amusement of a scorpion toying with its prey. Winslet plays frumpy here, which makes her relationship with Jericho more interesting and more realistic.

Or do gorgeous women really get drawn to math like a flame?

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