The Honorable Woman (2014) Review

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Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Honourable Woman (2014)

Three years after The Shadow Line (2011), Hugo Blick returns to television with a remarkably timely, gripping new miniseries that, in just eight episodes, delivers one of this year’s most dynamic stories.

The emotionally taut political thriller takes a stark, but not entirely hopeless look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, largely through the eyes of Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal, magnetic as ever), an Anglo-Israeli baroness and perhaps the most superbly written female character to grace the big or small screen in a long while. Superficially she meets all the expectations of a female public figure: elegant, poised, stylish, articulate. But inside she’s crumbling, torn apart by a secret some would kill to protect.

For all their wealth and distance, even in England Nessa and her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan) cannot escape the warfare: As children they witness their father’s ruthless assassination and as adults, public emblems of Israel, they often become the target of the enmity directed at the country. What’s more, Nessa, determined to forge a path of peace where her father’s name once reigned synonymous with Israeli aggression, frequently finds herself the object of criticism, scrutiny, surveillance and more than occasionally, grave danger. She and her brother’s Palestinian translator Atika (Lubna Azabal) barely survived a kidnapping almost a decade before, and now Nessa cannot leave her house unaccompanied without risking a bit of guile on her part. So it is not entirely unexpected when Atika’s son, during an outing with Ephra and his children, is taken. The event yields more questions than answers and draws the attention of MI6, namely its head Dame Julia Walsh (a commanding Janet MacTeer) and head of the Middle East desk Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (the always brilliant Stephen Rea). Together the pair unravel a path of lies, secrets, and betrayals, all leading up to a satisfying if somewhat heavy-handed conclusion.

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Nessa Stein

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Nessa Stein

One must first commend Blick for placing his spy thriller – that traditionally male-dominated sphere – in the hands of some very capable women. Nessa, Julia, Atika, all of them fiercely intelligent, wield power without apology, but they are not without their flaws. Atika and Julia both carry on affairs with married men, while Nessa seeks intimacy indiscriminately, engaging in risky trysts with both intimates and strangers. Apropos, the heart and soul of Honorable Woman is without a doubt the mesmerizing Gyllenhaal, who gives an effortless performance here, full of grace and poise, measured strength and poignant sadness simmering behind her eyes. She exudes a quiet power in every scene, even when at her most vulnerable, and if she doesn’t get some Emmy love it will be nothing short of disgraceful. That said, while certainly well-written, and its characters carefully drawn, the series is perhaps wisely vague on the political front. The Honorable Woman delivers exactly what it promises: the portrait of a woman reaching for hope amid the darkness. The title most likely refers to Nessa, but it’s just as true of Atika and Julia. These women may not be perfect – they deceive and manipulate selfishly as often as they do generously – but each manages to navigate the sea of corruption and violence surrounding them with an unshakable sense of justice and this sets them apart.

Laden with powerful imagery (the falling queen chess piece is a thing of simple, unexpectedly powerful beauty) and solid performances, The Honorable Woman is easily one of the most engaging, relevant dramas to be released this year. Storytelling rarely gets any better.

4 1/2 out of 5*

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