Two more strong heroines uncover dark deeds in the BBC’s measured, low-octaine, double period spy drama Restless, from William Boyd’s own best seller.
It’s 1976 and out of the blue, your elderly but formidable mother tells you she’s a former MI6 spy and that people are out to kill her. Rather than put her into a care home, you join in her perilous search for a traitor from the very roots of the Cold War in World War II.
This is Ruth’s (Michelle Dockery from Downton Abbey) chosen course when she discovers her mother buying a shotgun. Ordinarily you’d consult a dementia specialist, although two things run in mum Sally Gilmartin’s favour – she’s played by serious Charlotte Rampling and her whole story is told in flashbacks of the murky espionage world of 1941.
Hayley Atwell (Any Human Heart, Captain America) plays Russian emigre Eva Delectorskaya, recruited by the British Secret Service in 1939 by Lucas Romer (Rufus Sewell: Pillars Of The Earth, Zen). It’s more Thirty-Nine Steps than Hunted, in a moody, handsome two-part production with immaculate period detail, locations and exceptional CGI landscapes for a TV drama.
Atwell’s Eva is embroiled in war-time spying and soon has to take the hard decision to kill or be killed as an overseas posting goes catastrophically wrong; colleagues start dying and no one can be trusted. We know that she goes on the run for thirty years, but the questions of loyalty and betrayal take the full three hour running time to answer.
This is a difficult cast to warm to, given that everyone has a closet full of secrets and they have to keep you guessing who is the traitor.
Atwell matures from innocent abroad to hardened survivor. Dockery is very much her mother’s daughter, a tough single mother embroiled in deadly spy games; rather too cool for my liking. Once the dubious police detectives turn up at the house asking questions about your dodgy foreign ex-boyfriend, wouldn’t you pack up your child and disappear?
Rufus Sewell makes duplicity interesting, despite a villainous moustache and tricky position as chief suspect and love interest for Atwell. Charlotte Rampling’s (Melancholia, The Eye Of The Storm) customary tight-lipped, on-edge and glacial performance is something you like or not, whatever she’s in. Fascinating to watch, I never find her likeable.
Ever-reliable Michael Gambon (Page Eight, Harry Potter) as the older Romer, ‘Baron Mansfield of Hampton Cleeve’, gets very little to do in defending his secrets. What doesn’t help is that while Dockery and Rampling could be the same person, there’s no similarity at all between Sewell and Gambon. The casting is quality but a leap too far.
The whole production has quality written all over it; produced by Hilary Bevan Jones (State Of Play, Girl In The Café) and Paul Frift, directed by acclaimed theatre director, Edward Hall (Spooks MI5), the executive producers are William Boyd himself (screenwriter and author adapting his own work), and it’s a BBC and Sundance Channel co-production.
It’s a shame then that I really didn’t care about any of the spying shenanigans, who lived, who died, or who shot who. The pre-Cold War plot made no sense up to the point somebody gave us a two-line summary near the end and the whole thing unravelled. By then, the I had no investment in the mirrored showdowns of Atwell-Sewell and Rampling-Gambon.
I also find it distressing that 1976 is regarded as period drama. Oh dear. Hide the birth certificate.
There’s much to admire in Restless, if not to love. Think of it as the antidote to 2012’s silly private-sector Spooks ‘sequel’ Hunted – although I cared more about the characters in that than Restless. Somewhere in the adaptation the chill of the Cold War took out all the passion. RC
Restless BBC One TV
First broadcast: 27-28 Dec 2012
Director, Edward Hall
Writer: William Boyd
Genre: Thriller, Mystery
Cast: Hayley Atwell, Rufus Sewell, Michelle Dockery, Charlotte Rampling, Michael Gambon, Thekla Reuten, Adrian Scarborough, Bertie Carvel, Anthony Calf.