Friday, May 31, 2013

Death Decoded: The Bletchley Circle (2012)

You may recall how I complained about the unlikely revisionist feminist rewrite in the most recent film adaptation of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps.  Well, here is a far superior film mystery series that does something rather more plausible with a period feminist slant, The Bletchley Circle.

The film series is about four women, all of whom were involved with English code-breaking during World War 2 at the government's Bletchley Park complex.  Now it's 1952, and life is much different (duller!) for them.

hail, hail, the gang's all here

The brilliant Susan (played by the always compelling Anna Maxwell Martin, of Bleak House and South Riding), personally unfulfilled with her domesticated life as a 1950s wife and mother, has taken to tracking the activities of a serial killer of women who has baffled police. After her initial advice to police doesn't pan out, they ignore her (Susan's rather patronizing husband, Timothy, who is clearly insecure about himself and less intelligent than Susan, wasn't all that supportive in the first place). 

Susan: wartime codebreaker, peacetime homemaker

So Susan reunites her old Bletchley colleagues--the thoroughly modern (and been around the block a few times) Millie, played by Rachel Stirling (as the fans may know, she played Caroline Crale in the television adaptation of Agatha Christie's Five Little Pigs); their somewhat forbidding former boss at Bletchley, Jean, now a library administrator (Julie Graham); and the young and mousy Lucy (Sophie Rundle), who has computer-like recall--to help her track and catch the serial killer (who is not only a murderer of women, it seems, but also a necrophiliac).

The acting by these four leads is great, as are the period details (desaturated photography catches the austerity hanging on in 1952).  I thought the first part of this three-part series was especially good, as the women use their deductive abilities to find a geographical pattern for the killer.  This part was actually much more like a Freeman Wills Crofts detective novel--say The Hog's Back Mystery (1933)--than an Agatha Christie.

Millie: mapping out a killer's course

Part Two and Part Three felt a bit more cliched.  In Part Two, the Circle attempts to bait the killer.  I was sure I knew how this would go and I was right.  By Part Three the Circle knows the identity of the killer, who sets up a denouement involving Susan that seemed to me unlikely in the extreme.

Also, a problem I had with Susan (or maybe I should say the script) is that what she's doing is quite dangerous, obviously, but she repeatedly misleads her (admittedly kind of wet) husband about it, even though by the last part of the film she has put their young children in potential danger (and brilliant person though she is, Susan seems not to realize this until very late in the game).

To be honest, I didn't like Timothy all that much (though he becomes somewhat more sympathetic over time) and thought surely Susan could have done better in a spouse, but I wasn't comfortable with Susan's deceptions either, not when she had gotten in so far.  This had gone way beyond being an academic sort of puzzle mystery, like the crosswords Susan loves to solve. What would Susan have said to Timothy if their children had been killed by the criminal maniac that she and her friends had been so avidly--and so covertly--pursuing?

Timothy ("Dim Tim") gets suspicious

This may be an issue inherent in the amateur detective sort of mystery The Bletchley Circle represents, when it's combined with a strong dose of realism (the other women in the Circle, by the way, all are, like the classical woman amateur detective Miss Marple, childless; one is married, but to a total creep whose feelings need not concern anyone).

Here we have the classical element of the amateur detective blended with a horrific plot involving a necrophiliac serial killer, no less--something old, something new--and perhaps it doesn't always completely gel (think Tommy and Tuppence versus Hannibal Lecter).

Some reviewers (men!) have complained that the men in this series are all either morons or monsters.  I didn't think it was quite that bad.  Timothy has some potential for an evolving gender consciousness, I believe. Let's hope Susan and he are able to work out a more honest and mutually fulfilling relationship with each other, because otherwise I don't see much of a chance for this marriage! And their two children seem to be adorable (not to mention I love their house).

This carping notwithstanding, I found the film series quite enjoyable and was pleased to learn that another season is to be filmed.  This could be a real winner for English mystery fans, for this initial outing shows a lot of promise.

Bletchley House, where the circle formed


  1. I enjoyed this series very much - like you, I thought it wasn't perfect, but still better than a lot of the stuff that appears. I hope they do make some more in the series, it's a good solid concept. The male characters WERE all rather awful in their ways... something less extreme would be better.

    1. I wonder if we have to think of then men as being a reflection of the time period.

    2. BTW Clothes in Books -- You may like to check out the Bletchley Circle Watchers page. There are a bunch of posts about the wardrobe on the show, including vintage 1940s/1950s lingerie, and more to come. ...Seems like it might be up your alley.

  2. We're also waiting to see what becomes of Timothy and Susan of The Bletchley Circle @ and invite you or fans of the series to come join us. This review may be quoted or linked there at some point as food for thought.

  3. Thanks, Lara, I posted my thoughts on the Dim Tim conundrum at Bletchley Circle Watchers.