After a Christmas of dour and morbid festive specials – Downton, EastEnders and even Doctor Who – we were finally rewarded over Thursday and Friday night with some scintillating drama in the form of Restless, William Boyd’s BBC1 adaptation of his own bestselling espionage thriller.
Yes, Restless had plenty of death (which after Matthew Crawley’s untimely demise I thought I’d had enough of!) but it was neatly accompanied by suspense, thrills and a top class performance from young actress Hayley Atwell, alongside an all-star cast of Michael Gambon, Charlotte Rampling, Rufus Sewell and Michelle Dockery.
The split narrative follows the wartime escapades of young spy Eva Delectorskaya, interspersed by the present day concerns of Sally Gilmartin – Eva’s long-term alias who is convinced that her 35-year hiding place has finally been uncovered.
The story opens with Lady Mary dressed as a hippie (well, not exactly, but Michelle Dockery does sport some dodgy seventies attire to play Sally’s daughter, Ruth) setting off to visit her mother who then drops the bombshell that she was a wartime spy for the British Secret Service. Constantly looking over her shoulder for the past few decades, Sally/Eva now fears that the not-so-subtle men lurking at the end of her garden are plotting to kill her. Downton Abbey this is not.
Ruth is the only one who can save her mother’s skin and, to explain her story, Sally has written down the details of her clandestine youth and exactly what led her to flee all those years ago.
Introduced as a fanciful tale, the story of young immigrant Eva Delectorskaya is brought to life by Hayley Atwell’s alluring portrayal of the naïve Russian, recruited to the British Secret Service in Paris by pencil-moustached operative Lucas Romer (Sewell), who preys on her vulnerability following the murder of her brother.
Eva’s transformation from innocent ingénue to savvy spy Eve Dalton is pacily charted by her whirlwind adventure from Belgium to Holland to the US – via a fleeting spell in 1940s London that marks the beginning of a passionate affair with the mysterious Romer.
But it’s Eva’s nail-biting trip to New Mexico and narrow escape from almost-certain death that kick starts the real drama as she embarks on a race against time to locate the colleague attempting to kill off the members of her team. In fact, Atwell’s performance is so captivating that during the narrative’s intersecting periods in the present day, you find yourself feeling her absence on-screen and yearning for her return to the action.
That isn’t to say Rampling and Dockery aren’t good – their increasing anxiety provides a tension that neatly balances young Eva’s energetic adventures. And Sally’s encounter with Gambon’s elderly Lord Romer (eventually uncovered as the double agent) reaches a dramatic conclusion as she stoically confronts him after decades spent in hiding with the knowledge of his betrayal.
But besides the gripping storyline, punctuated by plenty of nervy phone calls and the odd gory murder scene, Restless was enjoyable for its welcome dash of glamour – think tilted hats, high waistlines and endless chain smoking (I blame Mad Men for making that glamorous). And anyone who doubts a woman’s ability to brandish a gun and outrun her enemy – in a dress with a handbag in tow – is soon silenced by Eva’s cunning final escape across the Canadian border to safety.
Whilst her modern day incarnation as Sal tells us that Eva Delectorskaya does eventually pull off the seemingly impossible and evade discovery, the tense subscript of lengthened pauses and anxious glances succeeds in holding the viewer’s attention throughout. And the eerie setting of Sal’s rural hideout aptly confirms her wry admission: “You’re never really, truly safe again.” Indeed, as the credits loom following Lord Romer’s suicide, the camera lingers on Sally brandishing her telescope, gazing out into the woods once more – unable to shrug off her lifelong suspicion that her pursuers are waiting just around the corner.