Amid the plethora of recent television dramas, the BBC adaptation of William Boyd’s spy thriller Restless surpassed the majority with intelligence and panache. A two-part tale about disloyalty, love and resilience in the face of deception, Restless was brought to life by an accomplished cast and a clever script. Written by Boyd himself (the author penning the next James Bond novel), it centres on a young woman who discovers that her mother worked as a spy for the British Secret Service during the Second World War. In addition, her mother also reveals that she’s existed in hiding and in grave danger ever since the duplicity that sent her running.
Within the two parts are two tales taking place in two different timelines. In 1976 rural Cambridgeshire, Ruth Gilmartin (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery) is revisiting her mother’s British espionage past whilst trying to piece together the mystery of who, after all these years, is still threatening her life. She learns that the mother she knows as Sally is a Russian refugee turned undercover agent whose real name is Eva Delectorskaya. In flashbacks to 1939 Eva, having been recruited by the suave and mysterious Lucas Romer, is sent on secret assignments around the world to assess situations, provide and retrieve information and act as Britain’s eyes and ears. In the process she falls in love with Romer, despite his warning not to trust anyone, least of all him, and becomes trapped in a web of deceit, falling prey to the worst kind of betrayal. When both her life and the lives of her fellow spies are threatened, she must escape and disappear as if she’d never even existed.
Much like the earlier BBC drama The Secret of Crickley Hall, Restless moved between timelines seamlessly and coherently. It was easy to absorb and nicely balanced; never settling in one timeline long enough to forget about the other. It captured the essence and spirit of World War 2, as well as what it would be like for a woman in those times, let alone a woman spy.
The acting was part of the reason I took to the series, with the most notable performance coming from Hayley Atwell who played young Eva. She was simultaneously vulnerable and strong, fiercely intelligent yet blind to the lies she was tangled up in. The producers can without doubt attribute the success of Restless to Atwell, whose charm and confidence shone throughout. Rufus Sewell’s Romer was as you would expect a master spy to be; sophisticated, dubious and elusive. Sewell delivered an average performance but, like everyone else, was ultimately overshadowed by Atwell.
There were some qualms associated with both the conclusion and the lack of edge-of-your-seat action sequences. The inevitable traitor revelation was a thorough letdown; a predictable anticlimax of an ending. The identity of the ‘baddie’ was clear as crystal from the beginning and there didn’t seem to be any effort made to throw the audience off course. The so-called ‘surprise’ was an obvious one, leaving much to be desired. The action sequences also left me wanting more; it was vaguely exciting at times but not exactly nail-biting, heart-stopping excitement. James Bond this is not.
Putting aside what it wasn’t, Restless was unequivocally entertaining. All in all, a great addition to the ever-growing BBC drama collection.