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As if one of the great surprises of the television season, The Honorable Woman on Sundance TV, needed any advantage beyond its own complex brilliance and a career-defining performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal, it also happens to be incredibly timely.
The BBC and Sundance TV co-production is an espionage thriller set against raging tensions between Israel and the West Bank, with ties to Britain and, to a lesser extent, the United States. The eight-episode miniseries boldly seeks to explore the notion of Israeli and Palestinian differences and the internecine history that makes even the smallest bit of progress impossible.
Written and directed by Hugo Blick (the BAFTA-winning creator of The Shadow Line), the miniseries weaves a spectacularly well-constructed story — intricate, dense, demanding and rewarding — about loyalty, deception, forgiveness and revenge.
It centers on Nessa Stein (Gyllenhaal), an Anglo-Israeli whose father sold weapons and ammunition that Israel used in its battles with Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. When she was a child, Nessa and her brother, Ephra (Andrew Buchan), witnessed the assassination of their father. Years later, when she inherits her father’s company, she changes its mission to foster peace and engagement between Israel and Palestine, primarily by running fiber optic cables from Israel into the West Bank for high-speed Internet access and to create a learning institution in the West Bank.
For her efforts, the baroness is given a (nonvoting) seat in the House of Lords.
Within mere minutes of the show’s beginning, it turns into a knotty, multilevel espionage tale with snaking storylines, flashbacks and revelations, startling but believable twists and unraveling secrets.
Secrets, in fact, are at the heart of The Honorable Woman — as they are in any good thriller. But Blick piles them up and contorts them at a feverish pace that keeps the audience guessing while making them want to binge-watch the entire miniseries in one sitting (a great compliment of our times).
And while all that is highly impressive, the series works best because each character is well-drawn and superbly acted. At the forefront, Nessa is perhaps the most mysterious. She’s idealistic but not naive, eager to right past wrongs but never, in the process, seeming to seek personal redemption. Gyllenhaal imbues Nessa with a world-weary quality; she’s a very bright woman who wants to use her position for good but understands, given the political complexities, that she’ll look like a rich interloper if she publicly suggests that peace can be achieved through her corporation.
Still, Nessa passionately believes that the Stein Group needs to try to do some good, no matter what anyone says, and that perhaps that little something will be the start of something big.
Soon enough, everything starts collapsing — the people, the politics, the secrets, the lies, the history — and the storytelling doles out snippets until you want them at a faster pace. The plot thickens as truth proves hard to find and Nessa realizes that her overriding mantra — “We must not be compromised” — can never be upheld.
It would be a fool’s errand to try to explain the myriad twists that will come to The Honorable Woman. Just know that the cast brings it all home.
Among key characters are Atika Halabi (Lubna Azabal), who is Nessa’s translator when she first comes to the West Bank and quickly becomes a trusted partner, and Shlomo Zahary (the wonderful Igal Naor, stealing every scene he’s in), the man whose Israeli company lays the first two phases of cable but loses the final phase to a Palestinian company.
Rounding out the supporting cast are Stephen Rea as Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle, head of the Middle East desk at MI5, who is tasked with looking into what’s going on at the Stein Group after the assignation of the latest contract stokes new tensions, and Janet McTeer as Dame Julia Walsh, Hugh’s boss at MI5, who realizes as ever more complications pop up that she needs “two dogs chasing one ball” and therefore brings in Monica Chatwin (Eve Best), from the foreign office in Washington, D.C.
But more information merely means more secrets and lies. Wondering who can be trusted — anywhere — is the high-stakes game at the heart of the series.
Rea and McTeer, in particular, are outstanding in their roles, though each nuanced performance contributes to making The Honorable Woman an exercise in top-tier television.
Blick’s own direction is a significant factor in the telling of The Honorable Woman; he’s as comfortable shooting slow conversations at a table as he is filming a killing. He also directs Gyllenhaal masterfully — the tension in her body is just so, released with slow exhalation and quiet tears when it all seems too much for Nessa. The fact that Gyllenhaal is a standout in this prestigious cast is a testament to how exceptional she is here.
Still, it’s ultimately his writing that makes the miniseries. Few things this dense and ambitious are able to stick the landing when the last act comes, but The Honorable Woman does it with aplomb. This is the miniseries that will have people talking, just as Broadchurch, The Returned and Fargo did recently. Don’t miss it.
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