Although the intensity of their first adventure still hangs in the air, The Bletchley Circle is back for more mystery and intrigue in postwar Britain. A brief flashback to Bletchley introduces Alice (Hattie Morahan), another colleague of Susan (Anna Maxwell Smith), Jean (Julie Graham), Millie (Rachael Stirling), and Lucy (Sophie Rundle), who in the present day is being investigated in the murder of a scientist (Paul McGann) who also happened to be her lover. In the second, Millie is briefly kidnapped, where she discovers her supposedly harmless job selling counterfeit perfume and nylons is connected to a Maltese human trafficking ring that victimizes young girls who think they're starting a new life, but are actually being sold into prostitution. In both cases, the women band together to solve their mysteries, all while keeping their code-cracking pasts a secret.
Although I missed the first season of "The Bletchley Circle", the two unique layers of the program remain apparent: the people of Bletchley Park itself, many of whom were women, who cracked codes during WWII but were not recognized until decades later, and creator / writer Guy Burt's additional step of setting the show in the 1950s, when those same women, once on the intellectual front lines, were forced into the kind of secretarial work and domestic duties that society expected of them. In some ways, the fact that the show is a traditional mystery thriller does feel like a bit of an out, as if the adjustment wouldn't make for a fascinating enough story, and there are certainly times when the show overplays its dramatic flourishes, but the ensemble (even as it shifts and changes) more than makes up for the amount of convention that is on display.
A glance online shows that Susan was at the center of the first season, and many lavished praise on Smith's performance. The hardest thing for me to parse as a new viewer is how much Season 2 might suffer in the eyes of fans by shifting away from her, and even changing the format to a single three-episode mystery to two two-episode mysteries, possibly to accommodate the changes. Throughout the first two-parter, Susan is pulling away from the group, shellshocked by the events of Season 1, and Alice is built up in her place. To everyone's credit, the transition is very smooth: Alice is built up and fleshed out as a character in an impressively short span of time, and both Smith and Morahan perform their roles with flair, but it'd be hard to argue with anyone who said the show's entire dynamic was different once the roster changes.
That said, this is an impressively balanced cast of characters, each with a wonderful amount of personality and flair. Both mysteries here are very emotional for the characters at the center of them (Alice and Millie, respectively), the former being very personal and the latter just being heartbreaking, but the real joy of the show is seeing how each woman is brought to life by the thrill of the chase. In the first segment, Susan's husband Timothy (Mark Dexter) has just gotten an offer abroad. While she doesn't want to put her life in danger anymore, she can't help but be enticed by something more thrilling than investigating private schools for her children (especially when she knows she could run educational rings around most of the teachers). In the second segment, one of the characters (it'd be a bit of a spoiler to say which!) finds themselves defeated by the job hunt, but has Millie's quest to save a girl and her sister from being sold to distract her from her financial woes.
In terms of direction, both episodes are put together quite nicely (the first helmed by Jamie Payne, the second by Sarah Harding). Each chapter moves at a surprisingly brisk pace, and although all of them have B and C threads running through them, none of them are a bore or drag down the pace. The tension and sense of danger in each two-parter is really impressive, and it honestly feels as if the filmmakers wouldn't be afraid to off a major character. At the same time, there are a number of elements in both episodes that are funny or sweet, such as Lucy's potential romance with a handsome police officer (Nick Blood), and the resolution of Sarah and Timothy's marital problems. Although the actual execution of the mysteries themselves is fairly conventional, the overall viewing experience is never less than lively, thanks to the thrill of seeing something with a little freshness in its concept.
"The Bletchley Circle": Season 2 is decked out with a nice, simple shot of the cast. A window makes for an unremarkable backdrop, but I suppose I prefer something classy like this to a Photoshop job or faces in boxes. The two-disc set comes in a standard Viva Elite Blu-Ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 1080i AVC and LPCM 2.0 audio, "The Bletchley Circle" is a mixed bag. Much like "Murder on the Home Front", the picture here has a significant problem with black levels, which are far too deep, crushing detail, not to mention the resulting inky shadows frequently turn blue as they edge into the light. Ghosting is fairly apparent throughout (reminiscent of older British television), and there may be the slightest hint of banding, but the picture generally looks good outside of the boosted shadows, with brightly-lit scenes displaying the kind of detail one expects from high-def. The audio sounds generally good, although the majority of the effect here is the separation of the music and dialogue, both of which sound quite lively. However, the show is a little streamlined when it comes to the sound mix, with little emphasis on atmosphere outside of the basics. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are included, although I am personally disappointed by what I'd call "Netflix subtitles": yellow and all caps.
The one extra is a series of interviews (27:42, HD) with the cast and crew. These are mostly standard, covering the inspiration for the second series, the sets, the costumes, and production, but there is one really special interview, and right up front, with Audrey Wind, one of the actual Bletchley codebreakers. It's a shame her segment is so brief, but it's worth watching the first couple of minutes, at least, just to hear a couple of her thoughts.
Despite the overly dark picture, "The Bletchley Circle" is a highly entertaining and engaging show that feels different and off the beaten path. Although fans may find Season 2 is an upheaval, changing a great amount of the show's original recipe, it's still an easy recommendation.
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