Here’s a movie so flat and routine that it can present the future of Western civilization as hanging in the balance while making it seem as though nothing much is at stake. Set against the historical backdrop of World War II and the British efforts to crack the German Enigma code — efforts which led to seminal breakthroughs in computer technology — the film combines confusing details about coding techniques with a sub-Le Carre spy plot of twisty betrayal and near-zero plausibility.
When we first meet our protagonist, master code-cracker Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott), he looks like he’s just coming off a weeklong bender, unshaven and surly and seriously distracted. As it turns out he’s just emerged from some apparently not too restful asylum, having cracked up after being abandoned by his glamorous and mysterious girlfriend Claire (Saffron Burrows), a filing clerk at code-breaking central. Claire, who we see in a series of happier-day flashbacks, has shown a suspiciously keen interest in Tom’s decoding work. When she subsequently disappears, we figure she is or was a spy who’s either returned to her masters or been disposed up. Tom is determined to find out just what happened to her and is assisted by Claire’s former roommate and co-worker Hester, played by Kate Winslet, who’s been deglamorized in a movie sort of way, i.e. given glasses and an uncool haircut.
Meanwhile, work on the Enigma code is intensifying as the Germans are planning to attack a group of American supply ships and the relevant messages must be interpreted. Technical information is given to the viewer in a much too hurried manner while the spy plot expands to include the massacre of a group of Polish soldiers and the mysterious presence of a U-boat off the coast of Scotland.
Remarkably, this plodding mix of coincidence and cliché was directed by Michael Apted and written by Tom Stoppard — perhaps misplaced fealty to the source material, a potboiler by Robert Harris, would account for the general snooziness. Only Jeremy Northam, as a droll and cynical government agent who toys with the unstable Jericho, enlivens the proceedings. But just a little and not for long.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].