tue 16/10/2018

Restless, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

Restless, BBC One

Restless, BBC One

For all its ominous music, William Boyd's adaptation of his World War II espionage novel failed to convince

Hayley Atwell as the impossibly glamorous spy Eva DelectorskayaCredit: BBC/Endor Production. Photos by Casey Crafford

William Boyd wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of his 2006 espionage novel, and since it’s integral to the whole he retained its two-part structure. The first concerns the World War II activities of former British intelligence spy Eva Delectorskaya, the second, set in 1976, concerns her efforts to lay the past to rest. Not only has the past cast a dark shadow over her life but it continues to endanger it. For this she enlists the help of her daughter.

Yet if you’ve read the book, the most compelling parts concern the daughter and the contemporary political events that intrude upon her world. You sense this is because Boyd has experienced the Seventies at first hand, hence the decade comes alive in a way that Delectorskaya's war doesn't. Yet those are the details Boyd dispensed with.

Atwell goes about her dangerous, secret missions in dusty New Mexican outposts looking like a Dior mannequin

A novel on the page and a telly adaption are, of course, two very different beasts. Boyd is an old hand at adapting his own work for film and TV, but what we were left with in this two-part adaptation of Restless, directed by Spooks director Edward Hall, felt a bit clunky, certainly very clichéd, and more than a touch absurd as a tale of espionage. This is partly the fault of the book. Boyd is no John le Carré and the story, with its made-up spy argot and its perfunctory training drills, doesn't really ring true, even if they’re as close to the real thing as you can get.

One problem is that Hayley Atwell’s spy is impossibly, ridiculously glamorous. One is led to believe that the first rule of spying is that you need to blend into the crowd, yet Atwell goes about her dangerous, secret missions in dusty New Mexican outposts looking like a Dior mannequin, though thankfully her acting isn’t as stiff. So is there a reason for this over-the-top glamour other than to capture a period feel which in itself feels thoroughly inauthentic? It does strike an odd note when everyone else can be seen galloping around in sensible shoes.   

Michael Gambon as Lucas Romer in RestlessAnd then there is the problem of names. This isn’t a problem with the adaption, of course, but with its source. Are we really to believe that the sexy, nay delectable, Russian spy, who later goes by the dowdy name of Sally Gilmartin, is really called Eva Delectorskaya? This may be a Boydian joke, but Boyd’s work appears to lack too much of a sense of humour to carry it off. It has trouble carrying any of it off.

Restless had its usual top-notch BBC drama cast, and they were all perfectly watchable. Charlotte Rampling played the Atwell character three decades on, Rufus Sewell and Michael Gambon (pictured above right) were Delectorskaya’s spymaster – Gambon, as Lucas Romer, now at the heart of the establishment as a member of the House of Lords but harbouring a terrible secret that he’s understandably keen to go on protecting. And Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery played Ruth, the daughter who knew nothing of her mother’s previous life. Little of the psychology of these characters seemed to rouse our interest, even less was it explored. This seems a shame, since this is what might interest us most, either in real life or in a contemporary espionage fiction. 

One final thing that palled was the music, an ominous soundtrack that went thunderously into overdrive to take the place of any genuine dramatic tension. This was particularly notable at the end, when you were being led to expect something dreadful. There’s a subtle art to deflecting expectation in order to provide relief or fresh insight. This really didn’t deliver it.

Boyd is no le Carré and the story, with its made-up argot and its perfunctory training drills, doesn't convince

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