Restless Miniseries: The True Story
The Restless miniseries stars Hayley Atwell as Eva Delectorskaya, Rufus Sewell as Lucas Romer, Michelle Dockery as Ruth Gilmartin and Charlotte Rampling as an older Eva. It was adapted by William Boyd from his own novel, which was in turn very loosely based on real events.
Note: Spoilers are blacked out like like this secret . To reveal a spoiler, just highlight it.
In 1976, an elderly and paranoid spy, recalls how she was sent to the USA before World War Two as an agent-provocateur and how the betrayal that has haunted her ever since may require revenge in the present.
Restless: Plot Summary
Restless is the story of Eva Delectorskaya and the consequences of her career as a spy. It is a split time narrative, set in the 1940s and the 1970s. In the 1940s strand Eva works as a spy for the British during World War II. In the 1970s strand, Eva’s daughter Ruth attempts to discover the truth behind the events Eva witnessed in World War II.
Ruth Gilmartin’s mother lives in the country. Ruth visits her and learns her mother is in fact Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian refugee recruited as a spy by the British in 1939. After training, Eva is sent with her boss and lover Lucas Romer to Holland and survives an attack by Nazi spies, who snatch Mi6 agents from a cafe in ‘Prenslo’. Having proven herself, Eva is sent to the USA as part of a mission to encourage the USA to join the war. Romer asks her to seduce and blackmail an aide to Harry Hopkins. In 1976, Ruth poses as a journalist to contact Lucas Romer (now Lord Romer).
In 1941, Eva succeeds in seducing and blackmailing the aide. In 1976, she follows Lord Romer to his home address after Ruth’s failed interview. In 1941, she is ordered to pass a poorly forged map outlining a German invasion of the USA. Eva survives several attempts to kill her but her colleagues die one by one, and she goes on the run convinced she is in mortal danger from a traitor trying to cover up the map plot. In 1976, the two women visit Romer and denounce him as the traitor.He commits suicide to avoid the shame of exposure. The story ends with Eva still scanning the woods around her house, her lifelong paranoia unassuaged by Romer’s death .
The True Story Behind the Fiction
The World War II sections of the Restless miniseries involve Eva’s recruitment and operations for British Security Co-ordination (BSC), a real British espionage organisation that operated in the USA during World War II. Several books, most famously A Man Called Intrepid, have been published containing contradictory accounts of BSC’s work.
The Prenslo Incident
The snatching of the spies from a cafe in ‘Prenslo’ in Restless is based on the true story of the ‘Venlo Incident’, in which two British intelligence officers, Sigismund Payne Best and Richard Stevens, were the victims of a sting operation by the German secret service the Sicherheitsdienst (SD). The two agents were under the impression that they were in contact with German officers plotting against Hitler, and arranged to meet the plotters at the Café Backus in the Dutch border town of Venlo, from where the SD snatched them and drove over the border into Germany. The incident in Restless is essentially accurate, although the protagonists are inserted as witnesses, Venlo is renamed as Prenslo, and the two MI6 officers are not named.
Seduction and Blackmail
This section is very loosely based on the story of Amy Elizabeth Thorpe, code-named ‘Cynthia’. Elizabeth was a British agent in the USA who used her seductive powers to convert isolationist US senators, particularly Arthur Vandenberg, into supporting the British. During the Lend-Lease debate Vandenberg announced at the last minute that he had finally decided to support it. This was arguably the turning point in the Senate debate. Vandenberg and sixteen other Republicans voted in favour of the bill, which hence passed.
Elizabeth was described as:
Unusually beautiful, she had an exquisite, narrow-boned figure; a light quick-silver wit, a sharp intelligence and a soft and soothing voice that somehow inspired trust and confidence. It was by a combination of these formidable qualities that she was able to extract secrets of the highest political and military importance from the men of influence and position she cultivated for that purpose.
The Nazi Map
The section of Restless concerning the planting of a fake map on a German courier is based a statement made by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in which he claimed:
“Hitler has often protested that his plans for conquest do not extend across the Atlantic Ocean. I have in my possession a secret map, made in Germany by Hitler’s government – by the planners of the new world order. It is a map of South America and a part of Central America as Hitler proposes to reorganize it.”
(Navy Day address, broadcast on 27 October 1941)
This map is now believed to be a forgery, produced by BSC. The depiction in Restless of the map and the process by which it came into the President’s hands is not accurate, as Boyd’s main purpose is to show the betrayal of Eva. In reality, according to the account in A Man Called Intrepid, BSC simply presented the map to the US authorities along with a story of how they had acquired it ‘after a car crash in Buenos Aires’.
When I read the novel of Restless I was disappointed with it, although I did feel the sections set in World War II were much better than those set in the 1970s. I felt the 1970s section was largely padding, added to plump out a relatively thin story and to make it more ‘literary’. Clearly though, my opinion was not widely shared as the book was a bestseller.
The Restless miniseries takes the wise course of dropping the bulk of the 1970s plot and concentrating on the much more interesting World War II section. Despite this, the story is not much of a ‘thriller’ more a relatively gentle mystery. Anyone expecting Skyfall is likely to be disappointed. Instead think Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy .
Happily, instead of the long and rather boring chapters about Ruth’s struggles as a single-mother in 1970’s Britain, we are left with brief shots of Ruth reading Eva’s diary and talking to her mother. Her one big scene, where she travels to Lord Romer’s country club and loses a verbal joust with him, remains.
I can’t help feeling that in crowbarring real incidents into the story, Boyd at times loses sight of narrative drive. What exactly is the point of the ‘Prenslo incident’ scene? It doesn’t seem to drive the plot forward. Similarly the seduction and blackmail of Harry Hopkins aide. The Nazi Map does at least have plot relevance as Eva determines that Romer has betrayed her after escaping the trap.
At the denouement of the novel, Eva confronts Romer, provoking him to suicide in order to preserve his reputation . This leaves a gaping plot hole – why does she only do this in 1976, when she has had the motive for revenge since 1941? In terms of plot mechanics, the answer is obvious, Boyd wishes to bring together the two threads of the novel to provide closure to the narrative but it’s unaddressed in the novel.
In the screenplay, Boyd has made a slight change, after escaping: Eva returns to Britain and shoots the minor character Alfie, who has betrayed her to Romer and Romer then chases Eva during an air-raid. Eventually she shoots him. This is more realistic, on two rather unlikely assumptions: first, that Eva believed she had killed Romer in 1941 and only learnt he was not dead in 1976 and second that Romer had failed to track Eva down in the intervening decades.
Still, having torn up the plot, I will say, the story does generate a good bit of mystery and tension, the period settings are nicely evoked, and the acting from the whole cast is excellent – the problems, including the rather tame ending, are all present in the original material.
Alternative Movie Poster
This is my design for an alternate, more minimalist Restless poster. The image of Hayley Atwell was manipulated to give a 1940s feel and then overlaid with the actual forged map from the US archives.
The Restless Miniseries: My Verdict
Worth watching and substantially better than the book.
Want to Watch It?
Here’s the trailer:
Look out for Restless on the BBC or the Sundance Channel. It’s not on DVD at the moment.
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