Last Updated on October 29, 2018

Restless (2012) BBC: Set in the 1940s and 1970s, this BBC drama is a tale of passion, duplicity, and betrayal. Ruth Gilmartin (Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey) is stunned to learn that her mother, Sally (Charlotte Rampling, Broadchurch), has been living a double life.

Starring Hayley Atwell, Rufus Sewell, Michelle Dockery, Michael Gambon, Charlotte Rampling.

Not rated


Restless, courtesy BBC

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Restless marked the fifth of William Boyd’s novels to make it to the screen – a significant feat – but Boyd also had a somewhat rare opportunity for a novelist: he penned the script for the adaptation of his British wartime thriller. Not every author can condense their novel into a digestible movie or mini-series format, but here, Boyd excelled.

At the center of Boyd’s narrative is a female British agent, Eva: “In the fraught and compelling three hours of Restless we explore the human consequences of what it is to be a spy. What price do you pay when you have to live in a world where nobody can be trusted, even those people you love? Eva Delectorskaya’s long journey from the jeopardy of the Second World War to the restless watchfulness of someone living a totally secret, underground existence touches on emotions we all inevitably encounter as we explore, through the course of our own lives, what it means to experience the human condition.”

Historical mystery author Anna Lee Huber shares an interest in the plight of women who served with the British Secret Service during wartime. Her latest novel, Treacherous is the Night, is the second Great War era book in her Verity Kent Mystery Series. Huber’s protagonist Verity worked for the Secret Service and even though the war is over, is forced down a path she never imagined, to discover the real intrigue has only just begun.

We asked Anna Lee Huber to share her thoughts on the period drama. Below, she unpacks what she loves about Restless.

Confession: As much as I adore period dramas about spies and secret agents, I’m always wary when watching a new one. Too often the plots are too convoluted, the coincidences too great of a stretch, and the characters—especially the females—too cliché. However, almost from the first minute of Restless, I was able to sit back and enjoy, trusting I was in good hands.

Based on the bestselling novel by William Boyd, Restless, a two-part television movie, tells the story of Sally Gilmartin, aka Eva Delectorskaya, in a dual timeline format. The movie opens at Sally’s isolated country home in 1978, where she reveals to her daughter, Ruth, that she’s been living a lie. She’s really a Russian named Eva Delectorskaya, and during WWII, she worked as a spy for the British Secret Service. Now Sally/Eva believes her life is in danger, and she needs Ruth’s help to find her former spymaster, Lucas Romer.

Interwoven with these 1978-set scenes, are flashbacks of Eva’s wartime service, moving from France, to Scotland, to Belgium, and eventually to America, where Eva is given an assignment of seduction and deceit. When a second mission becomes deadly, she is convinced someone must have betrayed her team. With the killer or killers closing in, Eva goes on the run and into a lifetime of hiding. Thirty years later, she must confront the traitor before it’s too late.

As proven by the success of stand-out shows like The Bletchley Circle, Bomb Girls, Land Girls, and Home Fires, books and film about women’s service during wartime have enjoyed a recent surged in popularity, and there are a number of reasons to rank Restless among the best.

1) The cinematography, soundtrack and production values are superb: Even the opening scene transforms a simple car drive through the English countryside into a moment of tense uncertainty. The camera alternates between shots of Ruth and her son smiling, their windblown heads bobbing to the music of a ‘70s folk tune, and wider-angle shots of the vehicle nearly enclosed by the bordering hedgerows. Switching between these different viewpoints introduces tension, and inspires a sense of uneasiness that something lies just beyond Ruth’s vision, something that isn’t quite right. It’s foreshadowing at its best. Every scene is instilled with the same master touch, be it inside the country house, in a tiny café in Holland, or the dusty streets of New Mexico.

There is one scene where Eva has been given these sandwiches which are chopped liver and onion and it is these little quaint details that Will feeds into his book that makes it so real. The art department then went off and got hold of some sandwiches and wrapped them in wax paper with string. I don’t open them up or eat them in the scene, but in between takes I discover that they are actually chopped liver and onion; it’s these small details that make a difference. Every time you open up Eva’s handbag you find a perfect little cigarette holder, a silver lighter, some powder, blusher, a little nail file; all the period pieces. The audience won’t necessarily see these in a scene, but all those little details make an actor feel that you are stepping into a world that has been fully created and it all started with Will on the page; with him wanting to create a very vivid world for people. – Hayley Atwell

2) The acting is stellar: I couldn’t have dreamed of better casting for these roles. And in Restless, the success of the performance particularly hinges on the women. Hayley Atwell and Charlotte Rampling, as the younger and older versions of Eva, and Michelle Dockery (Ruth) all put in nuanced performances of strong, but vulnerable women. Dockery’s character is more of a free spirit than her more famous role of Lady Mary in Downton Abbey, but both characters exhibit the same strong backbone and iron determination.

Restless, courtesy BBC

However, the leading men—Rufus Sewell (Lucas Romer) and Michael Gambon (Lord Romer)—as well as an experienced supporting cast, certainly more than hold up their end of the tale, adding layers of tension and humanity. No relationship is straightforward, and each friendship, each romance, each moment of contention is layered with the knowledge that trust is a rare commodity.

I loved every single moment of it and Will clearly loves writing female characters; they are rich, complex, interesting and intelligent and everything you would want to play as an actress.- Hayley Atwell

3) The portrayal of spies is accurate: The author of the book (Boyd) and the show’s creators clearly did their research. From the recruiting and training, to the seemingly mundane nature of many of their tasks, the depiction of WWII Secret Service agents is well drawn. We find the agents largely involved in what amounts to propaganda work, culling information from secret sources and manufacturing plausible scenarios, attempting to influence the enemy and potential allies behind the scenes. Though Eva finds herself repeatedly in danger, it is often while in the midst of performing the routine jobs that spy memoirs and histories of the Secret Service reveal to be typical, not the high stakes operations that many spy thrillers would have you believe is normal.

Restless, courtesy BBC

The nature of women’s roles in such work is also explored, and it was within the exploration of this aspect that there came one moment in the film where I feared the tale was going to devolve into tired, misogynistic stereotypes. Until recently, most espionage fiction has cast female spies in the role of either a Mata Hari-type seductress or a martyr-victim similar to Edith Cavell. However, the plot of Restless quickly revealed itself to be even more clever than I expected, and actually ended up turning the cliché on its head, using it to prove just how faulty such narrow-minded thinking is, and how dangerous.

It’s a fascinating story and what I love about the script is that it is based on truth. I read it about three times because it is a complicated plot but I think it will be really exciting on screen. I tend to just work with what I see on the page but what’s fantastic in Will’s writing is that it’s kind of all there and I found myself referring to the book whilst I was on set. – Michelle Dockery

4) The behavior is authentic: Not only does Restless depict the activities of spies during WWII accurately, the story also showcases their foibles and allows them to realistically stumble. The reactions and problem-solving of the agents are convincing. No one pulls a solution out of thin air, or completes a task with superhuman strength. They respond to each given situation in a plausible manner.

I think the title refers particularly to the three women – there is an anxiousness about both the older and younger Eva which then extends to Ruth, who becomes far more restless as the drama progresses because she doesn’t trust anyone. She doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not. – Michelle Dockery

5) The women are strong, clever, and fierce: Both the younger and older versions of Eva and her daughter Ruth present dynamic, sharp, highly intelligent women who take charge and make no apologies for their lives. But they are also relatable in their vulnerability and their moments of uncertainty, at times not knowing what step they should take next or who they should trust.

6) It’s suspenseful and riveting: When I sat down to watch Restless, I planned to view only the first half that night, and finish the rest later. But I was so eager to discover what happened, I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish it. As a mother of two young children, my willingness to sacrifice sleep in order to watch it to the end is a testament to how enthralling it is.

Before Pearl Harbour, when the US refused to join the war, Europe was in a lot of trouble. England put up a brave fight but MI5 and MI6 considered it imperative that the Americans joined the war. Restless looks at a branch of espionage involved in trying to create reasons for the American public to sanction their country going to war with Germany. – Rufus Sewell

7) The costumes: I’m a sucker for period costumes of the 19th and early 20th century, and the clothing in some of WWII-set Hayley Atwell’s scenes is envy-inducing. The utility suits and puffed-shoulder gowns and the hats, oh, the hats! There are some gorgeous pieces of millinery perched on her head. But far from merely props, the costumes also serve to highlight the characters moods and vulnerabilities, as well as the societal changes that have occurred in just a thirty-year span.

Restless, courtesy BBC

And last, but perhaps most importantly…

8) Eva’s journey: Just the chance to experience Eva’s character arc alone makes this film a worthwhile experience. She begins as a somewhat hesitant, naïve woman who is persuaded to become a spy for the British in order to avenge the death of a loved one and get her ailing father into a good hospital. However, during her training and early months in the Secret Service, she discovers she’s actually quite good at being a spy, and her confidence grows.

When disaster strikes and she must face the possibility of betrayal, she is forced to confront just how far she’s willing to go, and where precisely her loyalty lies. Her journey is brilliantly portrayed, sometimes using the smallest tells to reveal her inner turmoil. In one scene, we watch her search a colleague’s briefcase while his back is turned. A colleague she ostensibly trusts. The act seems to be done on impulse, but that one small deed reveals more than any words how deeply her instincts are troubling her, and how greatly she struggles to know whether to heed them. A struggle that plays out repeatedly throughout the show.

Lovers of adventure, intrigue, strong female characters, and twisty period dramas, should give Restless a try. It won’t disappoint.


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Anna Lee Huber is the Daphne award-winning and national bestselling author of two historical mystery series. The Lady Darby Mysteries are set in 1830s Scotland, while the Verity Kent series takes place in 1919 Britain, and features a heroine who served with the British Secret Service during WWI and continues to find herself dragged into war-related mysteries. Huber is a summa cum laude graduate of Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she majored in music and minored in psychology. She currently resides in Indiana with her family. Her latest novel in the Verity Kent series, Treacherous is the Night, releases on September 25th. Visit her website here.

Read about Treacherous Is the Night here.

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll want to wander over to The Period Films List. Also see the list of BBC Period Dramas added to Prime in 2018. You’ll also want to read some of the articles by the author of Home Fires, like this one. And be sure to check out 5 Reasons to Watch The Crimson Field