PBS // 2012 // 135 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 14th, 2013
Cracking a Killer's Code
There's an argument to be made that World War II was lost as much as it was won -- if Hitler had had the brains to not invade Russia then things might have turned out quite differently. However, much of the winning on the side of the Allies is due to the work of those housed at Bletchley Park. It's most famous resident is probably Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who contributed fundamental insights into computer science, but approximately 12,000 people assisted at Bletchley, deciphering German messages, divining troop movements, and giving the Allies the intelligence edge the ensure they knew where most of Hitler's forces were during crucial moments (like the D-Day invasion, for instance). Of the 12,000 souls who passed through Bletchley during WWII, about 8,000 of them were women. The Bletchley Circle acknowledges this fact with a what-if story that sees some Bletchley graduates tracking down a serial killer. It's a solid murder mystery with some nice historical overtones for fans of British drama.
The Bletchley Circle opens with a scene in Bletchley Park that does a great job establishing the show's characters: Susan (Anne-Marie Maxwell) thinks she notices a pattern because she's good with patterns. Millie (Rachael Stirling) is the feisty one who convinces her to take it to the higher-ups, while Lucy (Sophie Rundle) helps flesh out the theory with her prodigious photographic memory. They're all backed by the matronly Jean, who acts as a kind of overseer. Between them they uncover a significant set of troop movements and are congratulated all around. Nine years later, Susan thinks she sees a pattern in an ongoing series of murders of young women. Though she takes it to the police, they dismiss her insights (at least partially because she's sworn to secrecy and therefore can't tell them about her experience with patterns during the war). Fearing for the safety of other young women, Susan reassembles the old team and together they hunt the killer. All three episodes of the BBC miniseries are presented on a single disc.
The Bletchley Circle does three things very well. The first is that it tells a solid mystery story. The first act (which roughly corresponds to the first episode) sets up the murders and the team of women who will solve them. The second act gives us the search for the killer, setting up his background during World War II, and the third act is all about resolving the situation once the murderer is known. There's good use of historical details, a decent amount of believable psychological knowledge, and a bit of physical danger for the women.
This leads to the second thing that the show gets right -- setting this story in the early 1950s, before England was completely off rationing, is the perfect setting. It was a time when the War still loomed over many things, and as a time for transition it was difficult for everyone, especially those who couldn't talk about what they'd done in the War. The setting provides lots of historical connections to things like Bletchley Park, but also things like old-school trains, excellent costume design, and a bit of stiff upper lip British style. Of course, tying all this into Bletchley and the work that went on there is a stroke of genius, as these women would have been perfect candidates for forensic scientists.
The final thing that The Bletchley Circle succeeds in giving us is a decent drama as well. These women aren't just sleuths. They all have distinct lives that represent a kind of continuum of the options facing women after the war. Susan is happily married to an upwardly mobile administrator, while Lucy is unhappily married. Jean appears to be happy as an unattached librarian, and Millie works as a waitress (and the implication is that she's probably had to prostitute herself in the past). Not only are their current lifestyles realistic, they don't just get to abandon regular life to chase a serial killer. The Bletchley Circle deals with the impact of the investigation on the women's lives, and the cost is high for them personally.
As a DVD release, The Bletchley Circle is pretty solid as well. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers are excellent. The whole production has a vintage look with slightly muted colors, but detail is strong throughout. Black levels are deep and consistent, and noise and other digital problems aren't apparent. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo tracks are similarly excellent. Dialogue is clean and clear from the center, with some stereo activity during tense moments. The balance between music and dialogue is well done, and there are subtitles for those who have trouble with British accents.
The sole extra is labeled "Interviews with cast and crew" but it's really more like a 28-minute making-of featurette. There are interviews, but they're interspersed with clips from the show in standard EPK style. It's a bit fluffy, but offers some nice insights into the production process.
Those who are looking for a gritty or pulse-pounding serial killer tale will be disappointed by The Bletchley Circle. Though not as bloodless as the average Agatha Christie adaptation, this series doesn't have to quick pace and in-depth forensic angle that most contemporary shows have. As for the show itself, I could have done with a 90-minute cut to tighten up the pace of the show. I like the focus on character and revealing background details related to World War II, but I can see other viewers growing frustrated with the somewhat languid pace.
The Bletchley Circle is a decent little mixture of history and mystery. Viewers get an interesting peek at an underexplored era of British history with the Bletchley Park connection and the early fifties setting, while the serial killer aspect is handled without recourse to modern forensic techniques. Fans of British mysteries and contemporary television will want to give this set a look. The audiovisual presentation is good, and the extras are more substantial than most shows of this nature get.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated