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March 13, 2003

DVD Journal: "Enigma"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

Hey, a quick and happy movie (er, DVD) recommendation: Enigma. Have you caught it? A thoughtful and grownup British thriller -- "speculative history" (I believe that's the correct name for the genre) from a Robert Harris novel about codebreaking, love, trust and betrayal in WW2 England. Military guys, nerd-genius code-breakers, an early computer, stockings and lipstick, Dougray Smith as a nerd with a broken heart, Jeremy Northam hilariously suave and sinister as a government investigator, fleets of merchant ships on the high seas, wolf packs of German U-boats.

That Obscure Object of Desire: The Enigma Machine

Kate Winslet plays a bespectacled, mousey and brainy office gal. Are you a Kate groupie? I am. The whole package appeals: the frown-that's-a-smile and the smile-that's-a-frown; the mixture of dowdiness and beauty, of innocence, mischief and lewdness; the fleshiness and stickiness; the just-passable-but-hopeful acting; the real-life tabloid troubles; the weight battles and marriage travails -- everything about her says "life is tragedy and mess, but why not live it with gusto?" And says so with a juicy combination of reluctance and urgency. This isn't a great film for Kate fans, but, heck, she's there, she's in a chubby phase, she's playing "wallflower," and she's as full of doubts and overheatedness as ever.

Kate Winslet, Overheated in Enigma

The film itself is intricate, lowkey and tense, and it's Michael Apted's best recent movie -- though I say this all too breezily, having seen almost nothing of his recent work. I do retain good memories of Blink, his 1994 thriller starring Madeleine Stowe at her most beautiful. ("Enigma" was co-produced by Mick Jagger, by the way.)

The Tom Stoppard screenplay is beyond fabulous. How do you react to Stoppard's work? I'm a weird one about it. I don't care for the plays of his I've seen and read, which so many people adore. For all his talent, dazzle, brains and energy, it seems to me there's a manic quality to his showboating (and "showing-off while playing with ideas" seems to be what his idea of the theater is), and although I don't find it dislikable, I do find it exhausting.

But I'm a huge fan of his work as a screenwriter / adapter of other people's writing -- for my money he's one of the very best. "Billy Bathgate," (lousy movie, but a fab screenplay), "The Russia House" (a fave of mine), this one, some others that aren't occurring to me just now -- great stuff, worthy of close study yet easy to enjoy. When he adapts for the screen, he seems to relax and let himself sink into the material; the human values take precedence, and the virtuosity is put to work serving the material. Plus, he's perceptive and humane about love and politics in ways I find moving.

I'll spare you the usual feeble attempts at evocative film-crit and just say that if you're in the mood for a newish movie-movie that's classical-but-not-stodgy (ie., not a media-blitz experience); something that's more akin to reading a novel than flipping through a magazine; something that's elegant, sophisticated and absorbing ... Well, you could do a lot worse.

I should also add that the movie is so quiet and thoughtful that my action-and-adventure-addicted Wife fell asleep about 30 minutes in.



posted by Michael at March 13, 2003


Michael ~

I've been meaning to catch Enigma...

Apted, however, wasn't the slickster behind Copycat (which I also liked). That was John Amiel. Apted's the dude behind Nell, Thunderheart and a couple of documentaries. One, Incident at Ogala (sp?) about Leonard Peltier (the subject of that Rage Against the Machine song from 1991, "Freedom" ) is quite good. Apted's Bond movie, however, was pretty lousy.

It's sort of interesting how trendy a geek's business like codebreaking has become. Shall we attribute it to popular novels like Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon? Maybe the way that the military and its technologies (nano and otherwise) have been marketed in such a sexy pop manner?

For a look at codebreaking as a popular form of entertainment, check out or any recent articles (in both the NYT and Slate on alternate reality gaming ~ which relies heavily on community building and the said community's ability to crack codes and solves puzzles to solve a greater (usually pulpy) mystery. These games incorporate all forms of media (fax, web code, e-mail, newspaper and voicemail) and imbed codes and puzzles in each.

Pretty wild, right?

Posted by: Nick on March 13, 2003 11:32 AM

Another excellent Stoppard screenplay is Empire of the Sun, still Spielberg's best film.

Posted by: Ian on March 13, 2003 11:41 AM

Ooops, thanks Nick for the correction. That's what happens when you forget to doublecheck with IMDB. I wonder if any of Amiel's other movies have been any good. I tried some Keanu Reevies, magical-realist-ish thing that he tried, and it certainly wasn't of much interest. But "Copy Cat" I found pretty enjoyable. Have you tried it? It is indeed fascinating how the geek-y topic of codebreaking has become so hot. Also how "the geek" himself has become standard pop-cult icon. Can't we scare them back into hiding, there to sniff their own socks? But maybe it's better to veiw them as an amusing addition to the usual cast of characters...

Hi Ian, thanks for reminding me about Stoppard's script for "Empire of the Sun" -- I'm a lame soul indeed these middle-aged days when I can't get to IMDB. (In the boonies on vacation just now; slow connection; busy household). Interested to learn that you liked the movie that much. I'm with you on the first 45ish minutes, which I found stunning. It seemed to me that after that, though, Spielberg slipped into his "Color Purple" over-obvious mode. I take it that second half of the movie didn't strike you that way?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 13, 2003 1:15 PM

Hi Michael,

I grant that Empire is uneven. The first half (I would argue at least the first hour) is what I usually use as evidence, sometimes saying that Spielberg will never make a better film than that. With him, though, you can never tell.

The second half, once the action is contained within the camp, is mostly a letdown, but there are still entire sequences that Spielberg has yet to surpass.

I'm thinking specifically of the one that begins with the dawn sortie of Japanese pilots, observed by Jim. When the soldiers begin singing to the pilots in tribute (I always wondered, are they meant to be Kamikaze?), and Jim sings the choral piece he sang at the beginning, you know this is something special. And it just keeps getting better, right up to the point that Jim admits to himself something that, to a boy of that age, must be horrifying.

I think perhaps the reason I love it so much, is that Spielberg uses the war as background, which helps to dramatize the intense fear of adulthood that most coming-of-age stories lack. I think he gets that feeling exactly right; at least, that's the feeling I remember.

Posted by: Ian on March 13, 2003 3:02 PM

Grrrrr, Stoppard. Shakespeare in Love really bugged me; if you substitute for Shakespeare some anonymous love-sick goon you immediately see how silly and conventional it really is. (Gwyneth Paltrow cured my writer's block!) And there's one line from it that is the essence of what's annoying about Stoppard. Shakespeare happens on some grimy kid torturing rats in the street and asks him his name. "John Webster," is the reply. To get the joke, all you have to know about Webster is that his plays were gory, and that's all Stoppard does know, I'd wager. So it is with most of Stoppard's "highbrow" jokes. What he's really testing is cocktail-party knowledge.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on March 13, 2003 4:40 PM

I'd second Ian's description of the kamikaze scene in "Empire of the Sun." For someone of my peculiar tastes, it's the most stunning five minutes in the history of film. There is a massive surprise about every minute leading up to the crucial revelation about adolescent masculine nature that's the theme of the film.

The key to understanding "Empire of the Sun" is a short Stoppard play called "After Magritte," which is a one joke comedy that begins with a surrealistic tableau more absurd than anything in Magritte. It's a sort of farce in reverse.The rest of the play explains the perfectly mundane reasons each character came to be riding a unicycle with a lobster in his hand or whatever they are doing at the beginning.

This doesn't sound like a genre with a future, but Spielberg picked up that Stoppard's script was emphasizing the real life surrealistic incidents in J.G. Ballard's autobiographical novel of his internment in China. Spielberg vastly amplified them, creating a series of very strange and to my mind wonderful tragedy-farces in reverse. For example, a lot of the kamikaze scene is Spielberg's contribution -- The American director's imagination works on a much bigger budget than the English playwright's.

The movie shows the seemingly impossible sights that happened in WWII China and lets the viewer slowly work out for himself what actually caused them. For example, when the woman who cares for the boy dies, there's a sudden ripple of light across the sky and he concludes, not unreasonably, that that was her soul going up to heaven. (That actually happened to Ballard.) Later you see the Japanese soldiers surrenduring in tears as in the background a BBC announcer reports on the radio about the Nagasaki A-bomb, whose over-the-horizon flash Jim saw as the woman died.

This approach is almost unique in filmmaking history, and its novelty causes a lot of the wildly divergent opinion about "Empire."

Posted by: Steve Sailer on March 13, 2003 6:12 PM

I'm quite mixed on Stoppard.

When he takes a situation, preferably an absurd one, and follows the (il)logic of it rigorously, he can be damnably clever. E.g., the game of questions in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead is hilarious to read, because the rules of the game make perfect sense, and lead to outrageous conclusions. ("Is there a God?" "Foul! Non-sequitur!")

Another example may be found in The Real Inspector Hound, early on, when one of the characters gets all of the necessary background information into one breath in a telephone call from someone who only asked if so-and-so was home. As it is a mockery of the drawing-room mystery, this gag is perfect.

Yet sometimes, as Aaron points out, he believes he's being clever when he's not.

I was rather under the impression, however, that Stoppard's principal contribution to Shakespeare in Love was the inclusion of Marlowe, which I thought was well handled. (The original writer, Marc Norman, said in an interview that he was afraid to include him at all, for fear that Marlowe "would grow all over the script like a crabgrass.") But I don't know the history of the script, so I'm probably wrong.

The most stunning five minutes in film history? I'm not sure about that, but it certainly ranks. Leaves me breathless every time. It's also a key scene in that it is the point where Jim's loyalties shift from a passive support of the Japanese empire to a full-blooded support of the Allies. That pilot waving... my god. I need to watch it again!

Posted by: Ian on March 13, 2003 9:45 PM

I am a very desultory movie goer, thus depend heavily on recommendations (I hate wasting time on a bad movie).

Enigma sounds exactly like a movie I would like. (I loved Pi. Will I like Enigma?). I am taking this as a recommendation!


Posted by: Felicity on March 13, 2003 11:58 PM

Heavens, I'll have to go back and check out "Empire of the Sun" once again. I don't even remember the kamikaze scene that struck you guys so hard -- I wonder if I'd just given up on the film by that point. Thanks to Ian and Steve for pointing the scene out. Speaking of film adaptations of Ballard, I was much more happy with "Crash" than with "Empire of the Sun." How did you guys react to "Crash"?

Hey Aaron, I sometimes feel the annoyance with Stoppard that you describe, but largely at his theater pieces. And I sometimes wonder if I'm not being unfair -- feeling annoyed with Stoppard less because of what he does and more because of what people make out that he does (ie., he's so smart, finally theater for intelligent people, etc). I mean, he's just a guy who likes to juggle ideas, and wants to make a show of it -- why not? And why hold that against him? He isn't claiming to be a philosopher or scholar, though his fans do make those claims for him. I take him to be a kind of facile and silly guy with a streak of eastern-Euro gravity (and respect for tragedy) in him -- a goofy and ambitious artist, not a thinker. So, unlike you, I enjoyed "Shakespeare in Love" (though I have no idea what his contribution was). Likable romantic frivolity, it ain't easy -- that was my admiring conclusion. How do you react to his more quiet and thoughtful scripts, such as "Russia House"?

Hey Felicity -- Well, "Enigma" certainly won't remind you of "Pi." It's nothing like so intense or subjective or avant-garde. It's more of a conventional costume drama, "Masterpiece Theater" or Merchant/Ivory, but kicked up several notches, and made more complex and lush. A kind of movie I usually don't have much time for, to be honest. But I found this example very satisfying. Let me know how you react if you do take a look at it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 14, 2003 12:07 AM

Haven't seen ENIGMA. As for delicious Kate, I would recommend her film, IRIS, where she is delightfully naked in a few scenes, especially emerging from a lake after an invigorating swim, only to be seen by a group of chaperoned school boys, and not caring if they see her! The best "womanly" figure in film today, in my view.

Posted by: Michael Serafin on March 15, 2003 12:27 PM

Of Stoppard's movies I've seen only Brazil, the weakest part of which was its screenplay, and Shakespeare in Love, so I'm generalizing recklessly as usual. But I agree with Michael that the plays are more annoying, and I suspect the reason is that movies are collaborative, while the plays are unadulterated Stoppard. Why hold his "idea-juggling," as Michael kindly puts it, against him? Because it's undisciplined. Because it detracts from whatever story he's trying to tell. Because he's old enough not to have to show us how clever he is.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on March 15, 2003 1:02 PM

Hi Guys,
I agree with your points and some of them are very valid and hold of a lot of water, however I think that you are looking into EoS a bit much. Jim is the child in all of us, well that was what I wanted him to be, and was just making the best out of a bad scenerio thats all

Posted by: MR Movie on May 31, 2004 4:59 AM

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