The Bletchley Circle

When the masterful 2005 version of Bleak House premiered on Masterpiece Theatre, we were all introduced to the talents of Anna Maxwell Martin. She starred as the orphaned, ill-treated Esther who finally found purpose at Bleak House before going on to star in a number of smaller roles. Now she has been restored as a leading lady, and she does it all rather marvelously in this three-part mini-series. 

Ordinary is not a word one could ascribe to Susan (Martin). She loves puzzles and cannot seem to shut off her brain no matter how hard she tries. Where there’s a riddle, she must follow. Some nine years after WWII, Susan is living simply, an ordinary life with two children and a husband whose career is on the brink of brilliant success. As a code-cracker during the war, Susan was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement and has kept her work a secret, but now there have been a string of horrible murders and by powers of deduction, she’s come up with information that could aid the police in their investigations.

When the information turns out to produce no results, Susan reaches out to her former colleagues. Lucy (Sophie Rundle), Millie (Rachel Stirling) and Jean (Julie Graham), all of whom are living lives much akin to Susan. Lucy is involved in an unhealthy relationship, and Millie is hurt by Susan’s dismissal of their friendship, having once promised her that she’d never allow Susan to be “ordinary.”  

Skeptical to hear out Susan’s plans, the girls eventually band together, knowing there is more to Susan’s patterns than anyone is willing to notice. They use their training and any resources they can find to follow the serial killer’s path. Clues that may lead them right to his doorstep – and possibly endanger their own lives.  

One day during my on-line browsing, I happened upon this series and was drawn to it for a pair of reasons. For obvious reasons, the first was its leading lady and then I became interested after references were made to the brilliant Foyle’s War in other’s reviews. To judge the series by that original Anthony Horowitz penned script may not be fair, but it certainly has similarities while holding its own, proving that it is just as exciting, clever and addicting in ways that are unique to its own style. The only flaw in the otherwise spotless scripting is that the series spans a mere three one-hour episode run and there have been no plans to produce more. That is enough to earn a sad face from me.  

Restricting my thoughts to only this genre, I am not sure that since Foyle’s War, I’ve met a cast of such fabulous characterizations. It was more fun than I expected to follow these women as they deduced and sought clues to put away a murderer and try to convince the police of their findings in the meantime. Like her prior roles, Anna Maxwell Martin was a fantastic leading lady. She manages to play each character with a quiet grace and the role of Susan is no different. She’s compassionate and yet elicits sympathy from us for her apparent inability to calm her busy mind and desire to want to do something that matters. What she doesn’t realize is that to her children, just being their “mummy” is enough. Her personality doesn’t let her enjoy normalcy and yet, we don’t doubt that she loves her family. Behind the apparent, she’s an interesting character and one that could have been written even more complicated should producers ever see the merit in making the premise a serial. Each of the women has a specialty in their field which makes it easy to distinguish who plays what role in their crime-solving “book club.”  

Though the audience had more to go on than some mysteries, I was impressed how well writer’s strung along the viewers with clues. More is revealed than we might expect before the end but it did not detract from the thrill of the chase or seeing the killer brought to justice. There was excitement and danger in the course of one scene and it felt like an enigma that deserved more than an hour to solve. As a story, ‘Circle’ works well, but there are a few places that it lags in pacing though during its majority, three hours was filled nicely and never seemed to fall into being boring or come across as time used poorly in the capacity of a premise that is all too often abused. Filming and staging is equally impressive building suspense when it should and displaying character’s lighter sides when the time is right. Unfortunately, The Bletchley Circle is not all “good.” The premise may be written with precision but in all honesty, it travels down some dark places. The criminal mastermind is not a pleasant place to be yet this British (ITV) produced show has found a compatible balance much like predecessors have. Even in the middle of thoughtless crimes, the characters are not forgotten and they make it jolly good fun.  

(Parental concerns: One victim is seen screaming, tied up and later, when discovered, her clothing is in disarray as she lies bloody and lifeless. Conversation reveals how victims are murdered [they are murdered and then raped] and Lucy is nearly assaulted once on a train before she manages to escape; her captor tosses her around and roughly kisses her, leaving her body bruised. A man agrees to a favor in exchange for sex but it refused. Provocative sex crime cards are glimpsed in two or three shots. Spousal abuse is also present. A man is shot multiple times. The rating is TV14.)