Hidden Gems: The Complicated, Ambitious Brilliance of 'The Honorable Woman'

The Honorable Woman Still- H 2015
Des Willie

Back in 2014 when The Honorable Woman came out (or, if you prefer its British title,The Honourable Woman), I remember trying to do two things at once with it: race to its conclusion, because the limited series had set its hook immediately and I couldn't get enough; and try to slow it all down, rewind scenes and make sure I was following the dense, complicated storyline while guessing (very wrongly at the time) where the twists were going. 

Looking back on it I realize how rare that is, even now. Adding to the overall excellence of this series was the one thing I was desperately fretting about, given the overall track record of so many ambitious plots: sticking the landing. Sometimes a really unique television series can succeed even when it stumbles at the end (see the last Hidden Gem, The Returned). But often it feels like a disappointment, or worse some kind of tragic flameout where I end up feeling sorry that brilliance was eluded, like a perfect Olympics gymnastic routine that ends with a twisted ankle and heartbreaking fall on the dismount. 

But The Honorable Woman sticks the landing. I was happy for the miniseries back then, but now would watch every minute without pinning its greatness on that feat alone. That's because the journey, with creator Hugo Blick (Black Earth Rising, The Shadow Line) writing an immensely intricate, emotionally volatile mystery, is one hell of an accomplishment that not a lot of writers would even take on, much less nail. Blick also directs, masterfully, keeping the tension just right while allowing a fluid sense of believability that doesn't betray any one character, which is crucial to the long con of any twisty story. 

In The Honorable Woman, Blick purposefully steps on all kinds of trip wires, starting with the concept: tracing the Israeli-Palestinian historical struggle and whether any kind of progress can even be made there, given how deep the grudges go. The story surrounds Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is spectacular), an Anglo-Israeli whose father's company sold weapons to the Israelis that were used against the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Nessa and her brother, Ephra (Andrew Buchan), witnessed the murder of their father when they were young. Now grown, Nessa has taken the Stein Company and tried to use it for good, to foster peace and engagement between Israel and Palestine, primarily by running fiber optic cables between Israel and the West Bank for high-speed Internet access and to build a learning institution there for Palestinian students.

The simple question, of course, is whether this helps and whether that help would be accepted at face value or perceived as tainted given the source, or worse, as an elaborate ruse. Blick starts with the issue of trust and whether, generationally, old wounds can be healed and any kind of progress made.

That wouldn't be a bad series if that was all that was at the heart of The Honorable Woman. But whoa, whoa, whoa — does it ever get more complicated and laden with intrigue of a much vaster sort. Once Blick puts down his first card, as a viewer you think, "Oh, that's good. That will be interesting." Then he essentially flips the other 51 into the air and lets them fall all over the script. That's the ambitious beauty of The Honorable Woman, which explodes across each episode with elaborate twists involving the Israelis, the Palestinians, the British and the Americans. What was once a noble idea becomes something exponentially more. Trying to explain any of it would be, as I noted in my review, a fool's errand before it was even a spoiler.

This is a series that succeeds on the back of some truly top-tier dramatic performances, starting with Gyllenhaal and including one of my favorite turns from Stephen Rea, an actor who is good in almost everything he does but is sublime here. Also Janet McTeer, another effortlessly reliable actress. Two other performances that absolutely glued The Honorable Woman to the ground were by Igal Naor as Schlomo, the man whose Israeli company laid the first two rounds of fiber optics for Nessa's company and a lifelong friend; and Lubna Azabal as Atika, Nessa's translator. 

You would think from all my ravings that the plot itself and the above-mentioned performances were everything, but the ingredient that I later came to appreciate so much about the series was its gray-area subtlety, especially in terms of the interior motivations of the characters. Nessa has both disturbing memories and a disturbing streak to her behavior. The same is true of Atika, who can arouse all kinds of emotions in the viewer until her own story is fully told, which shades what you've seen previously.

Again, this is a virtuoso feat from Blick and I can't wait until his most recent effort, the similarly complicated and emotionally twisty Black Earth Rising, arrives on these shores.

In the meantime, you can discover The Honorable Woman, which originally aired on Sundance TV, on Netflix. It's an exceptional piece of television.