Espionage works best as a period piece. It’s a fact that the Bond franchise has been struggling against for several decades, having shed the post-war context that made the atmosphere of the original Fleming novels so compelling. And it’s telling that Bond had to escape to the timeless vistas of the Scottish highlands to get back onto comfortable cinematic territory.
William Boyd’s screenplay adaptation of his own book, Restless, is a gorgeous and compelling three-hour thriller, which leads us through a tense tale of wartime subterfuge. Boyd knows how to capture the claustrophobic intrigue of the wartime spy-thriller. And it’s Boyd who has been commissioned by the Fleming estate to write the next instalment in the Bond novel series. As Charlotte Rampling’s 1970s incarnation of Restless’s heroine Eva Delectorskaya tells us, ‘Never assume anything is a coincidence.’
Delectorskaya is a British agent, whose involvement in the secret service sees her embroiled in a team attempting to bring the all-important US forces into the war. All (almost inevitably) is not as it seems, as a double-agent is at work.
Our first meeting with Eva is, however, a generation later, as her daughter discovers her secret past. Said daughter, Ruth Gilmartin, is played by Michelle Dockery of Downton-fame, and has cast away her corsetry for willowy 70s chic and ill-advised period eye makeup. Little else has changed.
The first instalment seems a little anxious to get going, rapidly flitting between the two periods and trying to get the bothersome matter of exposition out of the way. Once it settles down in the incredibly capable hands of its gorgeous leads, Hayley Atwell and Rufus Sewell, all is indeed well, as the piece becomes atmospheric and engrossing. An early highlight is Eva’s visit to spy-school, in which she prepares for wartime espionage with a practical blend of ‘spot the difference’ and memorisation of US states. Enough to equip oneself against the Nazi war-machine, at any rate.
The second instalment is a real treat; utterly captivating and exciting throughout, as the link between past and present begins to unravel. Each period is beautifully shot and stylised, with one of the best-dressed casts on television. Sewell really knows how to carry off a tan fedora.
Some of the more snotty televisionadoes might turn up their noses at the slightly uneven way in which Boyd’s screenplay moves between periods and seems a little self-consciously adapted at both beginning and end. But this is more than made up for by the sheer stylishness of the piece, the quality of the acting, and, most crucially, its emotional integrity. The success of this adaptation is in its preservation of human feeling in a depiction of a world of espionage that is all too often repressed and cold.