Once a spy, always a spy – that’s the premise of the sleekly entertaining and wonderfully (if sometimes implausibly) cast thriller Restless. The two-part period piece on Sundance Channel (Part 1 premieres tonight, Part 2 next Friday) offers a double-whammy of time periods. The story begins in the 1970’s with a single mother and graduate student named Ruth Gilmartin. Because she is played by Michelle Dockery — Lady Mary from Downton Abbey – and is every bit as commonsensical as that character we get the added wit of seeing Lady Mary transported to the future, where she wears hippie-chic bellbottoms and oversize sunglasses.
Ruth’s mother is played by Charlotte Rampling, who brings her own sang froid to the role of the recently widowed Sally Gilmartin, who thinks she’s being watched, and has written a long, tell-all account of her past for her daughter to read. Sally used to be Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian emigre recruited as a British agent in the months before World War II. Dockery and Rampling’s cheekbones and hauteur make them a very good, fun-to-watch mother-daughter match. Rampling buys a gun (a very big one); Dockery gives her a good talking to.
As Sally enlists Ruth’s help to see if some old enemies are still after her, we jump back and forth in time, looking at the beginnings of Eva’s spying days. The younger, fearless Eva is played perfectly well by Hayley Atwell, but there is no way that Atwell’s rounded facial features would have turned into Rampling’s razor-sharp features without major surgery. Next to that it seems more credible – but not by much – that Rufus Sewell, who plays Eva’s mentor and eventual lover in the flashback sections, with crafty charm, would morph into Michael Gambon, but he does. Oh well, they’re spies, who knows?
Plausibility is never as important as cleverness in mysteries, anyway, and Restless (written by William Boyd from his novel, and directed by Edward Hall) is smart and swift enough to master all the turns. Eva finds herself in the U.S., driving a convertible through the desert, part of a British team trying to lure America into the war; those flashbacks are beautifully spliced into the ongoing story of Sally and Ruth trying to flush out the possible rat from Eva's past.
Sundance Channel hasn’t been known for original dramas, but Restless is the first of an intriguing new batch, which includes Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake. And last year the channel presented the fantastic, tough-minded Appropriate Adult, with Dominic West as a serial killer and Emily Watson as the social worker who gets sucked into this case.
Restless is less audacious than Appropriate Adult; in fact, it would fit comfortably as a Masterpiece Mystery, but take that as a compliment. It’s swift and engaging, full of great period color, and that unbeatable cast. Fans of the genre will be in heaven.