Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am
One of the most important contributions to the Allied victory in World War II was a code-breaking operation that was so secret it was not revealed until 30 years later. Their deciphering of the Enigma code developed by the Germans shortened the war by as much as a year.
This is the story of the people who worked at a huge and historic estate called Bletchley to unlock the unlockable. They had to solve a puzzle considered impenetrable because it was so complex that it could never have been decoded by the human brain. What the Germans never anticipated was that the British would think up the beginnings of the modern day computer and develop a “thinking machine” to sort through billions of complex computations and find the equivalent of a needle buried in one of millions of haystacks.
The essentials of the story are true, but the characters in the movie are fictional. As he did with “Shakespeare in Love,” screenwriter/playwright Tom Stoppard brilliantly interweaves the real and the imaginary to illuminate not only his characters’ era but our own.
The central figure in this story is Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott), a brilliant mathematician with a stunning grasp of numerical relationships. His grasp of human relationships is a little shaky, however. When we first meet him, he is returning to Bletchley after a breakdown. He was shattered by a brief, overwhelming affair with Claire (Saffron Burrows), a co-worker who seduced and then abandoned him. His superiors do not want him back, but he may be their best hope for breaking the German’s new code, the Shark, before a group of U-boats meet up with American convoys carrying desperately needed supplies.
The reason the Germans are using a new code is that they found out that the British had broken the Enigma. Meanwhile, Claire has disappeared. Figuring out where she is and whether there is a connection between her disappearance and the leak to the Germans is a puzzle that is as important to Tom as decoding the Shark.
He teams up with Claire’s roommate Hester (Kate Winslet) to find out what happened to Claire. As they search for clues, they are watched by Wigram (Jeremy Northern), a sleek secret agent investigating Tom and his team to see if one of them is a traitor.
Stoppard is fascinated with puzzles, wordplay, secrets, and stories within stories, all of which lend themselves very well to the Bletchley code-breakers. The movie brilliantly depicts the desperate atmosphere and heart-breaking dedication of the people who knew that their success – or failure – could do more to determine the outcome of the war than a thousand soldiers with guns.
The performances are excellent, particularly Northern, whose single syllable on entering Tom’s room, “Bliss!” gives us his character’s history from tony prep school through too many compromises. He is a man who has had to sacrifice what he once thought of as honor to serve a greater cause, has had to betray in order to be loyal, and has had to keep too many secrets. Winslet’s only failing is her entirely unsuccessful effort to look dowdy. But she and Scott are marvelous at showing us something we seldom see in movies, really smart people using their intelligence.
Parents should know that the movie has some sexual references and situations (brief nudity). Claire seduces just about every man she meets. There are some very tense scenes, including graphic images of slaughtered bodies in a mass grave.
The movie raises a number of moral dilemmas that are well worth discussion. When it becomes clear that there is no way to save the American supply ships in time, the code-breakers debate whether it is right to use what they know about the ships’ positions to help them calculate the keys to break the code. What are the best arguments for each side? Who was right? The characters lie and there are a number of betrayals in the movie – more than some members of the audience may be able to sort through on the first viewing – and it is worth talking about how people decide whom to trust and how much evidence they need before they change their minds.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy reading Between Silk and Cyanide, a wonderfully entertaining memoir by Leo Marks, who worked on creating codes during this era. (Fans of 84 Charing Cross Road will enjoy the fact that Leo Marks is the son of man who owned the bookstore at that address.) The complicated issues of uneasy alliances and tragic choices are explored in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Mother Night. You can also see an exciting but highly fictionalized version of the capture of the Enigma machine (in real life, it was the Brits, not the Americans) in U-571.