“Restless” might be how viewers accustomed to action-packed spy fare will feel watching Sundance Channel’s latest foray into original programming, not because William Boyd’s miniseries adaptation of his novel is bad, but because it slogs along at such a snail’s pace. The intriguing premise — discovering that mom was a sexy spy during World War II — and the casting of Hayley Atwell in the central role along with solid supporting players, make this a classy, handsome, but finally slightly soporific affair. It’s fine being reminded there’s a mundane side to espionage, but it’s not necessarily so great to watch.
“Downton Abbey’s” Michelle Dockery plays Ruth Gilmartin, who, in 1976, visits her mother Sally (Charlotte Rampling), and is handed a diary recounting her colorful past. Turns out mom was actually born Eva Delectorskaya (Hayley Atwell), having emigrated from Russia to France. In the wake of her brother’s death in 1939, she’s recruited by British agent Lucas Romer (Rufus Sewell) to spy for the U.K. on the eve of World War II.
The twist is Eva left the service for reasons that become apparent (eventually) via extended flashbacks, and remains convinced she’s in jeopardy to this day, with old chickens perhaps coming home to roost. Directed by Edward Hall, most of the action unfolds in the ’40s, with Eva and Lucas falling into an unlikely romance, and questions of moles and traitors complicating her final mission to the U.S.
The parallel modern plot has a skeptical Ruth gradually being drawn into helping Sally seek peace and closure, which brings her into contact with the older Lucas (a too-brief cameo by Michael Gambon).
As constructed, part one amounts to little more than an extensive set-up to try to lure viewers into night two (which will air a week later), but the second chapter isn’t much more eventful than the first. Nor does it help that the music by Lorne Balfe is incongruously urgent, frequently swelling as if in the midst of a Bond chase when, in fact, not much is really happening onscreen.
Having appeared in various British dramas as well as “Captain America,” the alluring Atwell is the main reason to watch, and that’s certainly not a bad incentive. Still, her character’s instinctive ability to read threats and function as a seductress are executed in too-tepid fashion, and while it’s something of a close call, the payoff ultimately isn’t worth a three-hour investment.
Like several other smallish networks, Sundance’s push into original fare has included tapping into the British pipeline (the most recent being “Appropriate Adult”), finding lower-octane fare than what washes ashore on PBS or BBC America.
Practically speaking, it’s better than nothing, but in this case, the strategy would work better if “Restless” was a little less restful.