They say that timing is everything in comedy. Turns it out it matters in drama as well.
Premiering July 31 on Sundance TV, The Honorable Woman would be an absorbing espionage thriller any time it aired. But given the current headlines, it’s hard not to notice the subject matter: a story of crime and betrayal rooted in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s not eerily prescient or ripped from the headlines: rather, its themes of suspicion, deceit and frustrated good intentions allow it to tell a story that’s both topical and eternal.
The title character is Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the British daughter of an Anglo-Jewish family whose father–a businessman who dealt weapons to Israel–was murdered before her eyes when she was a little girl. She’s grown to inherit the family business, but despite or because of her history of loss (much of her family died in the Holocaust), she’s turned its efforts toward peace–specifically, bringing fiber-optic wiring to Gaza to promote economic growth and fight the poverty in which terrorism thrives. As the miniseries begin, she has been rewarded for her efforts by being named a baroness, with a seat in the House of Lords.
A noblewoman, with noble intentions. But it becomes clear that it’s hard to carry them out without compromise, and being compromised; the process of cutting deals means alienating powerful people in the region and working against–and with–untrustworthy characters. Very quickly, she finds herself enmeshed in blowback: the suspect death of a business associate sets off a twisty plot, involving MI5 (Stephen Rea and Janet McTeer are excellent as agents and antagonists), suggesting threats lurking in every shadow, and revealing that Nessa herself hides secrets that make her deeply vulnerable.
Though the deliberate pace and cool tone recall classic British spy fiction (the series is a coproduction with the BBC), Honorable Woman is also very much in the mold of modern paranoid TV thrillers, where twists and reversals are interlaced like patterns in a carpet. But it prefers tension to explosions. Writer-director Hugo Blick deals out story relentlessly but makes time for conversations and silences that allow the excellent cast to reveal that their characters are more than they seem at first. Gyllenhaal is remarkable, playing Nessa as both person and persona, an accomplished woman who’s learned to keep a room-temperature face even when she’s melting down internally; only gradually do we learn how much of herself she’s lost in the interest of her cause. But the show has a vast bench: Igal Naor as a wily family counsel; Andrew Buchan as Nephra’s brother Ephra, hiding his own secrets; Lubna Azabal as Nessa’s nanny and friend, who shares crucial history with her.
Though the lavish production jumps between settings and countries (and the script skips nimbly through time), this is still a Middle Eastern story told from a distinctly British standpoint. But this remove ultimately helps it. What works about The Honorable Woman is how well its particular story and larger themes echo each other: trust and mistrust, hope and disappointment, resentment and revenge, repeating for generations.
I’m being cagey about the particulars of this story–who does what to whom and for what reasons–because this is a thriller, and discovering that is the thrill. But what makes The Honorable Woman more than a yarn is how, through these surprises, it tells you what you unfortunately already know, and are reminded whenever you turn on the news. In the first episode, an interviewer sparring with Nessa about her peace efforts on a radio show cuts down her lofty goals thus: “When it comes to the history of the Middle East, it never ends well for idealists, does it?” Timing, my friends, timing.