For me, the true centrepiece of the BBC festive schedules was Restless, an adaptation of the spy thriller by William Boyd. The luminous cast included Hayley Atwell, Rufus Sewell, Michelle Dockery, Charlotte Rampling and Michael Gambon. I confess to being a huge admirer of both Atwell and Dockery, and it is fair to say that their performances in Restless lived up to expections.
The plot switched seamlessly between the 1940’s and 1976. In the latter day, Ruth Gilmartin (Dockery)discovers her mother Sally (Rampling) is really Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian who worked for the British Secret Service during World War Two. Sally believes that she has been betrayed and enlists Ruth’s help to discover who is trying to kill her, by getting Ruth to track down her former boss, Lucas Romer (Gambon). Why this is happening hinges on what happened in the 1940’s, and the action switches back to these events, where Eva (Atwell) is being trained as a spy by Romer (Sewell). Eva is an accomplished agent, but she suspects a traitor has sold her out after a plot to plant a fake map showing the Germans are planning to invade the USA via Mexico goes wrong and she is nearly killed. Eva realises the plan was to have her killed all along, but it is some time after she escapes from the agency that she realises the real traitor is Romer. Throughout the drama the audience is led to believe that Romer needs to be tracked down in 1976 to help Sally evade death, in fact, he is the one trying to kill her, having finally found where she has been hiding. There follows a rather comedic showdown with Sally turning into gun-toting Granny while exposing Romer as a traitor to Ruth and therefore convincing him to kill himself.
Restless was consistently beautifully shot, clearly no expense had been spared on locations and period details. There was plenty to ogle over, from Sally’s gorgeous country cottage to the shimmering Albuquerque desert. Although difficult to pick a single standout moment, such was the overall quality, the scene of Eva and Romer kissing in silhouette with the heavy rain lit by moonlight was particularly special and redolent of a film noir. The only distracting visual was Ruth’s blue eyeshadow, thankfully toned down as she became more concerned with helping her mother, to apply it with a heavy hand.
Unusually for a BBC period drama, the cast didn’t whisper their lines and they weren’t drowned out by the background music. Even better, the sound department didn’t feel the need to shoehorn in the greatest hits of the Forties and Seventies to create a period feel. This should hopefully prevent other reviewers from engaging in their usual game of ‘that wasn’t released then’, although no doubt one of the typewriters was three months of date!
It was refreshing to see a primetime drama centred on two young female leads. Hayley Atwell displayed her usual depth of emotion first seen in Line of Beauty, and latterly in The Duchess. Atwell played a very different character here, although all three portrayals were of confident women, Eva was much more girlish and less of a seductress. I had the impression that Eva had only become a spy to continue her brother’s work, and kept at it to impress Romer, whom she had fallen in love with. Her talents as a spy seemed almost incidental, given her unprofessionalism in conducting an affair with her boss and her discomfort at being used as a honey trap. During initial training, Eva treated the exercises as a game and came across as a little silly. There was no trace of this silliness in Charlotte Rampling’s Sally, who was elegant and ruthless where necessary. Where Eva was happy to defend herself with just a pencil in an unusually gruesome scene, Sally was more practical and felt safe with a gun, which horrified her daughter Ruth.
Michelle Dockery is of course familiar worldwide as Lady Mary from the phenomenally successful Downton Abbey. I watch the show avidly so was concerned that I would spend most of Restless thinking that Cousin Violet would be horrified to see Mary in jeans. Thankfully Dockery put in a subtle performance and within a few minutes I was completely involved with Ruth’s story. There was a lovely moment at the end of Part One when Ruth is shown into a very grand country mansion. She is clearly uncomfortable and finds the whole rigamarole faintly daft. This scene was executed well by Dockery, who the audience is much more used to seeing at home in these surroundings.
There was a couple of odd moments in an otherwise flawless piece, which lent an accidental air of comedy. Why would a spy who had been in hiding for 30 years keep the spare front door under a flowerpot? How believable was it that Eva would be trapped in the exact same air raid shelter as Romer, who at that point she was trying to escape from. That a blast would illuminate her face at the exact moment he looked in her direction. And best of all, that she would be able to run away from him, and indeed from several other situations, in high heels? What a run of bad luck! I also noticed wryly that it must be terrible to be a suicidal spy, as you can’t ever just kill yourself without either making it look like natural causes or having people think you’ve really been murdered. An occupational hazard I suspect they leave off the MI6 application forms!
Those moments aside, this really was an excellent drama from the BBC, more than matching the corporation’s usual high standard. I doubt this will be the last William Boyd adaptation to grace our screens. Certainly, Dockery and Atwell can only continue to gain high profile roles of this calibre.
Contributed by Victoria Prior