Restless starts off like a pleasant British travelogue, with a pretty graduate student motoring along country roads to her mother’s cottage outside a quaint village.
And having deftly established its Penny Lane world in just a few shots, the film stands it on its head. Mum is not waiting in the kitchen with a tray of scones; she’s out back, scanning the woods with binoculars. Her greeting is anything but maternal: “Did anybody follow you?”
So begins Restless’ delicious excursion into paranoia and surrealism. Ruth Gilmartin is about to learn that her mother, Sally, is no dotty old gardener but a gone-to-ground spy whose real name is Eva Delectorskaya, still hiding out after walking a trail of treachery and murder three decades earlier during World War II. And, inexorably, Ruth will be drawn into her footsteps.
Adapted by William Boyd from his own novel, Restless — a two-part miniseries that concludes at the same time next week — is based on a little-known chapter of espionage history. Before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, most Americans were sturdy isolationists with no inclination to be drawn into the war raging in Europe. The British government assigned a secret intelligence cell to manipulate U.S. news media and opinion leaders with disinformation suggesting Germany planned to attack America.
In Restless, Eva, a young Russian emigré living in Paris in 1939, is recruited into that intelligence campaign. Her initial duties —writing phony news stories about Nazi atrocities and planting them in newspapers — are more intriguing than dangerous.
But her unexpected instinct for espionage eventually wins her roles in dicier operations, from helping Nazi defectors to blackmailing White House officials. At the same time, she’s falling in love with her spymaster, the suave but sometimes chilly Lucas Romer (Rufus Sewell, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), whose first rule of intelligence work is, “Never trust anyone, ever ... especially not me.” His advice seems increasingly apt as a string of Eva’s assignments go disastrously wrong.
Restless weaves back and forth on two story tracks: The tale of Eva’s espionage career in the 1930s, and her conviction that her spy days have returned to haunt her in the 1970s. Her daughter finally accepts the truth of the former, but is skeptical of the latter.
“The war’s been over for 30 years, for God’s sake,” Ruth chides her mother. “Why are you carrying on with all this cloak and dagger stuff?”
Soon, though, she realizes her mother has become her spymaster, running her as an agent against enemies who may be daffily imaginary or lethally genuine.
The uncommon acuity of Boyd’s script is immeasurably bolstered by an outstanding female cast. Restless might be the rare TV show that wins acting awards for two women playing the same role. Hayley Atwell ( Pillars of the Earth) is a marvel of nuance as the young Eva, shedding character skins — innocent schoolgirl, ruthless spy, befuddled dupe — as naturally as a snake. And Charlotte Rampling, returning to the World War II epoch that made her a star in The Damned and The Night Porter, imbues the older Eva/Sally with the manipulative skills and paranoia that accumulate over a lifetime of spying.
Michelle Dockery, liberated from the Edwardian costumery and soap-opera theatricality of her role as the shrill Lady Mary in Downton Abbey, turns out to be both subtle and shapely as Ruth, buffeted by a dawning awareness that her mother is a complete stranger.
“We all have secrets,” Eva comforts her. “Everyone. No one even knows half the truth about anybody else.”
In Ruthless, make that a tenth.