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'Restless' a Sexy, Gripping History Lesson

hayley atwell restless

Hayley Atwell created a superhuman soldier to battle the Nazis in "Captain America: The First Avenger." In "Restless," the British actress once again puts on the smart, World War II-era wardrobe that suits her so well, but this time she's the one being fashioned into a weapon of war.

Atwell's character uses several aliases during Sundance's new three-hour miniseries, beginning her journey as Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian emigre in Paris. When her brother is murdered by fascists, a British agent recruits her, sweeping her into a fascinating whirlwind of intense schooling. When she asks her mentor Lucas (Rufus Sewell) what to do without a firearm in dangerous situations, he tells her, "Use your intuition. Use your animal instincts."

With or without guns, we know Eva survives the war, because we've already met her as a recent widow living in a countryside cottage straight out of "Howards End." But her days have none of the afternoon teas or petty class concerns of an E.M. Forster novel. She's been looking over her shoulder, living as Sally Gilmartin for 30 years with her identity successfully hidden, but now someone is watching her.

The forceful Sally, played with unsettling reserve by Charlotte Rampling, is not about to play defense with the shadowy figures skulking in her woods. She makes the decision to confide in her grown daughter Ruth (Michelle Dockery of "Downton Abbey"), who is understandably incredulous.

"Suddenly I'm half-Russian?" she says, before her mother shocks her further by speaking her native language over coffee. After a few scary encounters of her own, Ruth quickly realizes that Mom might be paranoid, but that doesn't mean no one's after her.

A joint production by the BBC and Sundance, adapted by William Boyd from his novel, "Restless" reveals Sally's history to Ruth and the audience on a need-to-know basis, bouncing back and forth between 1939 and 1976. Introducing Eva's wartime collaborators amid Europe's politics during the first years of the war could have muddled the project quickly, but the script, directed by Edward Hall of "MI-5," succeeds -- as long as proper attention is paid.

This is not a show for background entertainment while folding laundry; it demands active engagement, and the payoff is worth it. As a coming-of-age story, an action movie and a spy mystery, "Restless" makes no allowance for disinterested or dull-witted viewing. It's also a romance, with Lucas seducing his recruit in the calculated, reticent manner that only the British can get away with.

Despite the distractions of her affair, Eva sharpens her skills as an operative during an often-overlooked period. Before the United States joined the Allied forces, a desperate Britain was playing every card in the deck to try to sway public opinion in isolationist America. Eva plants international news reports for a while, but parts of her training -- call them trash cans, not dust bins -- make it obvious she's headed stateside.

When she arrives in the fall of 1941, as far as the FDR's America is concerned, she is the enemy, an invader on U.S. soil who must dodge the FBI as well as agents from other countries. None of them know that the Japanese will soon save the British a lot of trouble by bombing Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 71 years to the day before "Restless" premieres.

What was billed as a routine courier job in New Mexico puts Eva's life on the line, and her immediate suspicions reveal a true talent for the game. "Restless" doesn't cheapen her adventure with extended shootouts or explosions, let alone James Bond-style car chases and nifty gadgets. Eva has no one she can turn to. Her wits are her only weapon.

Atwell gets more screen time than Rampling, but the actresses' confident performances meld seamlessly into a singular feminist hero. Ruth, a self-sufficient single mother in her own right, eventually puts herself in harm's way to help Sally solve her final puzzle. But at the end, she can only watch as her mother manages her own affairs, shotgun in hand.

After years of cryptic exchanges in hotel lobbies, gunfire in the dark woods and pillows used as silencers, Eva has learned her lessons, and she passes them on to her daughter: Trust no one else. Trust only your instincts.

William Boyd takes a crack at Bond

The best-selling author of "Restless," as well as the acclaimed novels "A Good Man in Africa," "An Ice-Cream War" and "Any Human Heart," will pen the next James Bond book, set for publication in 2013. Boyd has refused to reveal details about what 007 will be up to, saying only that his book will be set in 1969. Original Bond author Ian Fleming himself appears as a key character in "Any Human Heart." Coincidentally, Sean Connery, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig have all starred in film adaptations of Boyd's work.

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