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'The Bletchley Circle': WWII Women Finding Solutions

Lesley Smith

This series cleverly captures how World War II, with its massive mobilization of British men from all walks of life into the armed forces, transformed many thousands of women’s lives.

The Bletchley Circle

Airtime: Sundays, 10pm ET
Cast: Anna Maxwell Martin, Rachel Stirling, Julie Graham, Sophie Rundell, Mark Dexter, Michael Gould, Simon Williams, Stephen Robertson
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: PBS
Director: Andy de Emmony
Air date: 2103-04-21

Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Millie (Rachel Stirling) were once roommates at Bletchley Park, the World War II intelligence installation where the great, the good, and the obscure worked 12-hour shifts to crack encrypted German intelligence. But when Susan knocks on Millie’s door nine years later, they have nothing in common.

Millie has traveled the world, and seen a little too much of its rough side when her money ran out. Susan has slipped into middle-class marriage to a civil servant husband, and acquired two children and a neat '30s semi in suburban London. When Millie loses patience with polite chitchat over coffee, the audience understands just how fragile their bond has become. Asked what it is she wants, Susan reveals her theories of how a serial killer is thwarting police, and the spark of intellectual companionship revives. Within minutes, or so it seems, the two have tracked down their old supervisor, Jean (Julie Graham) and their Bletchley protégé, Lucy (Sophie Rundell) and pledged themselves to stop any more murders of vulnerable young women.

So begins The Bletchley Circle. While the mystery genre has a rich history of incisive social commentary animating a compelling investigation, this series struggles to balance an examination of women’s place in post-war Britain and a classic race-against-time mystery. In the somewhat languorous first episode, the imbalance is not so visible, as the characters are fresh and the production design seductive, from the utility tweeds and flannels of the women’s costumes to the smoky concourse of St. Pancreas station, and dim domestic interiors.

Adroit visual vignettes immerse the audience in '50s Britain: Millie first appears at her door in lacey underskirt and flowing silk robe, classic garb for the Soho demi-mondaine. The friends find Lucy and her young husband, and all their furniture, squeezed into a room so pinched that she is clearly only just clinging to respectability, and none too happily at that, as her husband immediately suspects the older women are social workers. In one fleeting tableau near a crime scene, the older Jean and younger Lucy, one too old to change, the other too frightened to try, clutch old-fashioned purses. But a trouser-clad Millie hangs her chic little bag negligently from one shoulder, while Susan, frustrated with the impediment, hauls her bag over her head, messenger-style. In such quirky touches, the characters come alive.

As the women’s bonds re-form, the series cleverly captures how World War II, with its massive mobilization of British men from all walks of life into the armed forces and related military work, transformed many thousands of women’s lives. Women from the middle and working classes, who might have expected to go to school, work, marry, and start their own families in the same neighborhoods where they were born, found themselves dispatched across British Isles, and beyond. Nearly 80% of Bletchley Park’s wartime employees were women, and they built networks of friends and colleagues across geographical and class barriers.

Given the promise of the mise en scene and historical setting, it’s a pity that the series' vision of '50s Britain on the cusp of change turns on the rather limp murder mystery. The premise is intriguing, in that the women approach the series of murders as code to be cracked via the same techniques they applied in the war. But the rationality of the approach soon descends into fragmentary mumbo-jumbo, manic cross-referencing, and Brobdingnagian leaps of intuition, visually exciting via a flurry of well-controlled crosscutting, but intellectually meaningless.

Scene after scene reduces the women to caricatures in cardigans and sturdy handbags. Lucy has a photographic memory, while Millie operates as the lateral thinker, purveyor of all that’s illicit in ration-card Britain, like guns, lipstick, and the nauseating perfume the murderer prefers. Jean, with her comfortable job in a prestigious library, organizes documents, sets up an operations room, and braces her girls (shades of Miss Jean Brodie abound), while Susan’s obsession with the case steadily erodes the restless intelligence with which she initially wins the audience’s sympathy.

These characterizations aren't helped by the tedium of their plot. Viewers trudge along through Early Misapprehension, Stock Red Herrings, the Epiphany That Turns The Investigation Upside Down, and, at last, the inevitable Moments of Reckless Stupidity that herald the final denouement. A senior actor dispenses wisdom, in this case Simon Williams, graceful and elegant as ever, as the former head of SOE. And every dead body elicits a procession of extras in British bobby outfits, bristling with chrome and oversized helmets. Very professional, but very, very dull. The same might be said for the frequent low-light scenes, which are not so much atmospheric as muddy and impenetrable.

Delicate moments still stand out, though. As Susan spends more and more time with her friends investigating the murders, she begins to turn the same inquiring eye on her husband. Over dinner one evening, she asks him whether he likes his job. With a moue of surprise, he replies, “Well, it’s a good job.” That one exchange encapsulates the emerging clash of values on the eve of Britain’s new Elizabethan age. Timothy’s is the voice of the Depression, of the search for a stable job with a pension. Susan’s, however, is that of the '50s, where choice is beginning to matter and personal fulfillment will no longer be deferred. It's a bit of social commentary that's as sharp as authorities are dull.


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