NEW YORK - Sundance Channel, best known for its documentaries and other unscripted fare, is about to present a deliciously suspenseful spy thriller that signals a new initiative for the network: more drama.
"Restless," a two-part miniseries that begins Friday at 9 p.m. EST, would be an attention-getter if for no other reason than its blue-chip cast. Here's delectable Hayley Atwell ("Cassandra's Dream," "Captain America: The First Avenger") along with veteran thesps Michael Gambon and Charlotte Rampling, as well as Rufus Sewell ("The Pillars of the Earth"), who's the very definition of a dashing leading man. Plus Michelle Dockery, whose return next month as Lady Mary Crawley is eagerly awaited by all "Downton Abbey" fans.
But there is more to recommend "Restless" than its fine troupe of actors.
Based on the best-selling novel by William Boyd, it weaves a double strand of intrigue set at the eve of World War II and in the 1970s.
It's a cloak-and-dagger saga chock-full of suspicion.
"Never trust anyone, ever. Especially not me," cautions Lucas Romer (Sewell), a shadowy and seductive British agent who has recruited young Eva Delectorskaya (Atwell) for his mission to draw the United States into the war effort by Britain.
"I would never trust you," Eva replies.
"You learn quickly," says Romer.
The film begins in 1976 with Ruth Gilmartin (Dockery), a defiantly independent single mother and budding academic who is shocked to learn that the mother she has always known as Sally Gilmartin is actually former spy Eva Delectorskaya.
After decades living quietly under the radar, Eva (Rampling) fears that her cover has recently been blown and that her life is in danger. She turns to her daughter to help flush out the elusive Romer and reassure her safety.
The story, dense and brooding, intercuts between its dual time frames. Young Eva, an unsuspecting Russian emigre in prewar Paris, transforms herself into a skilled secret agent with a new identity, a perilous objective (and, by the way, a steamy romance). A generation later, Ruth is being drafted to explore her mother's past while stewing over existential doubts: Can you ever really know anyone, even your own mother, when the all-too-routine human tendency is to seek safe refuge behind secrecy and falsehoods?
"Don't look so perplexed, my love," Eva tells her daughter. "We all have secrets. Everyone. No one knows even half the truth about anybody else, not even when we're very close."
"Restless" has a restless, noir murkiness about it. But even with the thrumming air of paranoia that powers it, the film boasts a corresponding stylishness, whether it's Ruth's circa-'70s bell bottoms or young Eva's 1940s cosmopolitan chic.
And even when conferring on abstruse details about their top-secret mission, Eva and suave, pencil-mustached Romer sizzle in each other's company.
"Restless" spins a smart, rich yarn and, even if its conclusion is a bit labored (by then, there are many strands to untangle), the film delivers a satisfying twist.
Meanwhile, it represents a new thrust for Sundance: more scripted productions.
This, of course, raises the question of how this sort of programming will set it apart from that offered by such networks as PBS, HBO or Sundance's sister network AMC?
"I feel like there is a distinct space that Sundance Channel can carve out within the growing trend of tremendous scripted drama we're seeing," declares Sundance general manager Sarah Barnett.
Two years ago, Sundance aired the Golden Globe-winning miniseries "Carlos," which starred Edgar Ramirez in an Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated performance as notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Last year, it presented "Appropriate Adult," a riveting miniseries starring Emily Watson and Dominic West.
Coming this spring, the channel will debut "Rectify," its first wholly owned scripted drama series. From Gran Via (the producers of AMC's "Breaking Bad"), "Rectify" is a six-part series about a man who has served 19 years on Georgia's Death Row before DNA evidence calls his conviction into question.
Also in 2013, Sundance will premiere "Top of the Lake," a seven-part series written and directed by Academy Award-winning Jane Campion and starring Holly Hunter and Elisabeth Moss ("Mad Men"). Set in the remote mountains of New Zealand, the story follows an investigation into the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl, five months pregnant, who was last seen standing chest deep in a frozen lake.
Coming after that:
- "Valentines" visits a high-powered New York attorney and his three attractive daughters in their luxury homes, tony social circles and stormy relationships.
- With producers including Stanley Tucci and Steve Buscemi, "Behind the Sun" is billed as a coming-of-age tale set in the surfer world of Malibu, Calif., where a teenage boy learns he has a rare allergy to the sun.
- "The Descendants" revolves around a sheriff policing two clashing communities: the small town where he grew up and the neighboring Ramapo Mountains, home of the Ramapo Mountain Indians.
- "T" tells the story of a transgender male who has recently undergone gender reassignment surgery and is beginning life as a man. It is produced by Ira Glass and Alisa Shipp ("This American Life").
- "Death in the Modern Age" tracks a down-on-his-luck suburbanite who fakes his own death so he can start life anew.
"We want to make shows that are smart, layered, morally ambiguous and complex," says Barnett, summing up her channel's scripted initiative. "I think we can tell stories of new worlds well on our channel. But we can also look at worlds you know, in a fresh way."