Using the style of a 1940s war film, Apted and Stoppard have created a cleverly involving, slow-burning dramatic thriller set around World War II codebreakers in Britain. These were ordinary people entrusted with important roles: figuring out what Hitler was up to. The dual-layer story centres on Tom (Scott), a mathematics genius who is called back from a breakdown to try and decode a new series of transmissions that might jeopardise an important convoy of ships in the Atlantic. But Tom is still obsessed with the mysterious girl (Burrows), also a codebreaker, who has now vanished. So he teams with her housemate (Winslet) to find her. And as their search becomes more desperate, so does the effort to break the new German code.
Stoppard deftly weaves both of these plotlines into a single narrative in which they seem to be completely intertwined–find the girl, break the code! This adds a level of intrigue to the film, despite the absence of any real action. And the film is terrifically involving, due to Apted’s attention to detail, Stoppard’s intelligent dialog, impeccable production design, a classic movie score by John Barry and superior performances from the entire cast. Scott is harried and distracted beyond belief, almost like a Hitchcock hero as he tries to solve two seemingly impossible mysteries at the same time. Winslet is stunningly good as the plain (but gorgeous, really!) girl with an infectiously jolly hockey sticks approach to life and adventure. Northam does a great Cary Grant shtick as the dryly funny secret service agent who doggedly appears around every corner. And Burrows, in an extended yet key cameo, exudes movie star glamour and secrecy. In fact, the film is so well-made that it feels petty to complain that it never grabs us below the neck. It’s brainy and brilliant, but despite amorous overtones and a few good action set pieces, it just doesn’t generate the thrills or romance that would have made it a true classic.