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Having already scored with its two scripted ventures — Carlos and Appropriate Adult — Sundance Channel keeps its streak going with Restless, a superb two-part miniseries about British spies in the early 1940s before America’s entry into World War II. With an excellent cast and a stirring story (it frays a bit near the end, though not enough to do any damage), Restless is based on the book by British novelist William Boyd (who also wrote the teleplay) and has enough intrigue, deceit, twists and lingering suspicions to lure you into its web.
The miniseries stars Hayley Atwell (Captain America: The First Avenger), Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey), Rufus Sewell (The Pillars of the Earth) and the dynamic acting duo of Charlotte Rampling and Michael Gambon. It’s executive produced by Hilary Bevan Jones (State of Play). That’s a lot of?talent.
Restless begins in 1976, with Ruth Gilmartin (Dockery) racing down a country road with her son to see her mother, Sally (Rampling). Ruth, now studying for her Ph.D., has been a free spirit without much contact with her mother, getting pregnant out of wedlock in Germany and keeping that little secret from Sally for years. Turns out everybody in Restless has a pretty big secret, but none more than Sally. At her country house, Sally keeps using binoculars and a telescope to look into the trees and lush green countryside that surround her house. People are watching her, she says. Ruth, of course, thinks her mother is imagining things. But on a whim she picks up the telescope and looks into the woods when her mother is away and sees the shadow of a man.
That haunting sense of being followed — even hunted — is the fuel that drives Restless. As Ruth tries to reassure her mother that it’s nothing, Sally drops a bomb: Her real name is Eva Delectorskaya, and she was one of the top spies in the British Secret Service and instrumental in the war effort. (There aren’t a lot of laughs in the tense Restless, but Dockery gets one while also being completely believable as she looks incredulously at Sally and says, “So I’m half-Russian?”) The film then flashes back to Sally’s early years where, as Eva, she’s played by Atwell, who is really the primary star of Restless, along with Sewell, who plays Lucas Romer, the spy who recruits her.
The premiere is the stronger of the two episodes, but all of Restless is excellent. The first part sparkles as Eva, at first wide-eyed, blossoms with her training. She’s a natural. Atwell gives her an earnestness that’s fresh for a spy story, but she’s also able to convince the audience that Eva’s cunning and determination are what separate her from the pack — not some badass attitude. Besides, Eva is in a part of the agency that disseminates information to manipulate the press — and thus the Germans and Russians, so it’s not like she’s Jason Bourne. Under Romer’s tutelage, Eva’s role increases and focuses on getting the Americans into the war to help the Brits.
Restless deftly switches between the early ’40s and 1976, and much of that has to do with Rampling’s superb performance as Sally. Once the veil of country widower is lifted and we know she’s a former spy, Rampling only hammers home the fact that she was a damned good one and — for reasons viewers must wait on — is still in danger at her advanced age. Dockery also is impressive in her convincing portrayal of a woman whose world is turned upside down. It takes awhile for her to believe her mother, and she slowly begins to assist her.
Of course, the spy work that Sally/Eva did in the war years ends up being the most compelling dramatic aspect and the bulk of the story. Restless does a sterling job of ramping up the intrigue and also showing the real risks of spy work as Eva’s youthful enthusiasm turns to paranoia. Sewell also is quite effective as one of the high-ranking British intelligence players who starts falling for Eva even when he has to put her in harm’s way.
Shot in the U.K. and parts of South Africa, Restless deftly switches between the pastoral 1976 back to wartime London, the United States and other locations. It’s lushly shot and directed by Edward Hall.
Where Restless hits a minor bump is in the latter part of the second installment, where there’s a little too much coincidence (or luck) in how events pan out. But it never flags in pace, and all the performances, even the smaller ones (like Gambon’s), are enthralling. There’s also an elliptical closing scene that at first hints at some of the minor problems of Restless — that it makes even the most mundane act seem like it’s going to end in terror, thanks to the music or editing — and then beautifully shifts to a shot that speaks to the heart and even the title of the story. It you’d lost any trace of faith as the frantic end rushed up, that small scene restores it.
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Thomas Brodie Sangster