'The Honourable Woman' Is a Thriller With Emotional Resonance

The Honourable Woman is smart, taut, and consistently suspenseful, without ever sacrificing character for plot, which is no easy feat.

The Honourable Woman

Distributor: BBC Home Entertainment
Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Lubna Azabal, Andrew Buchan, Stephen Rea, Janet McTeer, Eve Best, Katherine Parkinson, Tobias Menzies, Yigal Naor
US release date: 2014-10-14

“Who do you trust? How do you know? By how they appear? What they do? So when you think about it like that, it’s a wonder we trust anyone at all.”

-Nessa Stein

The BBC’s The Honourable Woman is a political thriller and intricate character study all in one. Focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s a complex and labyrinthine story that feels both timely and uncompromising. In a short eight episodes, it manages a great deal of storytelling with intelligence and nuance, always mindful of how complex the situation is, all the while treating its characters as equally complex.

The series begins with a flashback to 29 years earlier when a man is murdered during a lunch with his two small children. The murdered man is Eli Stein, and the story quickly shifts to show how his children have grown up and started the Stein Corporation, a group helmed by the recently-titled Baroness, Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal), along with her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan). The Stein Group seeks to bring cooperation between Israel and Palestine through a program that installs communications cables throughout the region, and a sponsored school. Nessa is the spokesperson for the Group and is intent on remaining neutral in order to continue this work.

Though Nessa is single and devoted to her work for the Stein Group, Ephra is a family man with many responsibilities. He is married to Rachel (Katherine Parkinson), who is pregnant, although they already have a house full of children. In addition, Atika (Lubna Azabal) and her son, Kasim, live with them. Atika is a housekeeper, but her connection to the Steins goes back much further and is much more complicated. She originally served as a translator for Ephra, and then Nessa, with whom she was kidnapped in Gaza. Based on their past, Atika’s history with both Steins is more intimate than it is professional, making their interactions much more layered than they seem.

There is very little that is straightforward in the world of The Honourable Woman. Spy agencies from Britain, the Middle East, and the United States all have a stake in how the Stein Group runs its business and hands out contracts. The secrets and manipulations that underlie almost every interaction is part of what makes the series so riveting. Even when answers are given and conclusions are drawn, there’s still a level of ambiguity to characters’ actions that leaves the viewer feeling off kilter more often than not.

As the various secret services work around, against, and with one another, no one person or agency ever has the complete picture. MI6 and the British Intelligence Office get the most screen time with Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea) working for Julia Walsh (Janet McTeer) in MI6 and Monica Chatwin (Eve Best) as a British Intelligence officer with American ties. There’s a messy personal history to contend with as well, but Walsh’s attempts to steer Hayden-Hoyle’s final mission lead to an investigation that goes places it was never supposed to, with equally shocking results. Rea and McTeer are wonderful as colleagues with a past, and a power dynamic that shifts throughout.

Hugo Blick has written and directed a series that is uninterested in playing it safe. Apart from the complicated political situation that it exists in, the central characters are fleshed out in ways that make them both sympathetic and difficult to fully trust. It’s a fine line to walk, but The Honourable Woman does it so well because it never tries to pretend that the subject matter it’s dealing with isn’t problematic to begin with.

It should be noted that Gyllenhaal bears the majority of the emotional responsibility in this story. She is, of course, the titular ‘honourable woman’ and she plays Nessa with defiance and vulnerability as she contends with heartbreaking moment after heartbreaking moment. Her scenes with Azabal are a highlight as their relationship was formed under the most horrific circumstances and is based on a shared secret. The final act is especially thrilling, largely because of the dynamics of their relationship.

From the beginning the series has an atmospheric, foreboding tone that serves it well; with a beautiful score by Martin Phipps lending the right amount of weight to the many emotional scenes it serves. In consistently incorporating flashbacks to Eli Stein’s death, as well as to Nessa and Atika’s kidnapping in Gaza, the past feels very much a part of the present. Though the kidnapping may have occurred eight years earlier, it hangs over Nessa and Atika, along with others, in a way that makes a great deal of their motivations directly tied to that time.

The Honourable Woman is dense and complex, but ultimately very satisfying because of how intricately it has interwoven the varied political interests and manipulations with the emotional lives of its characters. It’s smart, taut, and consistently suspenseful, without ever sacrificing character for plot, which is no easy feat.

The DVD release includes one extra, a short behind-the-scenes featurette, Deconstructing the Lies. It’s a welcome addition to the release, particularly as it includes quite a bit of material from Blick, but it would’ve been nice to see some commentaries as well.

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