Against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, Hugo Blick’s enthralling thriller The Honourable Woman unfolds like the petals of a flower, with the promise of more to be revealed at every turn. Building around political intrigue and the nature of secrecy, we get the story of one woman attempting to atone for the sins of her father and protecting her own potentially devastating secrets from ever being found out. What emerges is a gripping eight part mini series that hooks you instantly. Warning, some spoilers will follow in this review.
Nessa Stein(Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the Anglo-Israeli head of the Stein group. As a child, she and her brother Ephra(Andrew Buchan) witnessed the murder of their father Eli, who supplied arms to Israel. Twenty-nine years later, Nessa has changed the purpose of the company. Instead of selling arms, it is trying to supply telecommunications and data to Israel and Palestine. With this, Nessa hopes to promote reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians. As the story opens she has been made a baroness by parliament for her continuing work in the philanthropic field. Yet as she is about to award a Palestinian with an exclusive business contract in the company, he is found dead apparently having committed suicide. Events become even more murky and dangerous as Kasim, the young son of Ephra’s children’s nanny Atika(Lubna Azabal) is kidnapped. Soon enough, MI6’s smart head Dame Julia Walsh(Janet McTeer),retiring expert on Middle Eastern affairs Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle(Stephen Rea) and secret agencies are crawling over the case that seems to all link to Nessa. Nessa attempts to stay unshakable, but as the layers are pulled back we see that her forthright and composed demeanor hides inner pain and turmoil, that threatens to rear its head once again as the situation turns more complex. But in a world where even those closest to you have secrets, is there anyone that she can truly trust? And as we see in flashbacks many events that provide intrigue, most notably Nessa and Atika being kidnapped themselves while in Gaza eight years before, we are left to wonder what secrets are guarded by Nessa and how she will make her way through potentially dangerous situations that now surround and haunt her.
Right from the get go in The Honourable Woman, Hugo Blick crafts an intriguing and vast tapestry of secrecy, international politics and danger. As director, he weaves this tale of distrust and past events to tightly wound perfection, wrapped in a labyrinthine structure. And as writer, he allows the pace to build and build to a conclusion with a tight script, rather than taking the easy way out and revealing everything early on. The Honourable Woman is all about the patience of waiting for the reveal of secrets and it is observed with craft and skill. Some people may dismiss the show as just slow, but it is built up well and really does keep you guessing for a long time. Tension oozes from this show, as we navigate through a maelstrom of deceit and danger, twinned with the fact that every character has secrets and no one is the easily identifiable hero or villain in the piece. There is a complexity to the story that is reminiscent of Le Carre, but is also very rewarding in the long run as skeletons begin to rattle in closets and threaten to emerge. As Nessa asks in the opening monologue “Who do you trust?” By the end of The Honourable Woman its doubtful that you’ll trust any character or see them in the same light again. The immense built up makes the moments of gruesome violence and shocking events all the more unexpected in the long run. One thing that must certainly be commended in The Honourable Woman is the way it deals with the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Many dramas and thrillers attempt to remain neutral when showing a specific conflict but fail. This isn’t the case of The Honourable Woman as it presents both sides of the argument, how difficult the conflict is to settle because of the history and how no answer is the easiest. And while very much a thriller, it has an underlying drama observed through the complicated characters, especially Nessa who for all the protection around her, from her strong and resourceful bodyguard Nathaniel(Tobias Menzies) to her confidante and PA Frances(Genevieve O’Reilly) , can’t escape from what is put in motion.
A show that is as well-written and densely plotted as The Honourable Woman would have failed with the wrong actors. Thankfully, the actors assembled all bring their excellent credentials and undeniable skill to work here and make it a very riveting ride. Maggie Gyllenhaal is absolutely exceptional in the main role of Nessa Stein, the character that everything hangs on. Displaying the outwardly confident, regal and graceful persona and then peeling back the concealed depth of her character to show confusion and pain, Gyllenhaal is at her best here. Her convincing English accent is another thing to praise as it is so composed and well done. In short, Gyllenhaal embodies the many complexities and changes of her character with dexterity and wisdom, making this one of the finest performances of her career. Andrew Buchan essays the role of Nessa’s brother Ephra, who used to run the company but handed the reins over to his younger sister mysteriously. Presenting the quiet demeanor of Ephra, Buchan manages to display through subtle gestures something darker and haunted about him that makes him a fascinating character to watch. Lubna Azabal quietly embodies the role of Atika, close friend to Nessa and nanny to Ephra’s children, who shares Nessa’s secret from what happened to them in Gaza. Azabal has this amazing ability to convey such deep emotion though the smallest thing, which is highly effective. The scenes between Azabal and Gyllenhaal are excellently played and you sense the deep bond formed between the characters. Stephen Rea and Janet McTeer are on splendid form as members of MI6 drawn into this dangerous case with personal history of their own to contend with. McTeer in particular savours her role as the head of MI6 Julia, whose sharp intellect, quick-witted replies and decisive actions make her a great character in this labyrinthine thriller. Eve Best is well cast as the ruthlessly efficient and mysterious agent Monica Chatwin, while both Genevieve O’Reilly and Katherine Parkinson fill their respective roles as Nessa’s PA and Ephra’s wife very well. Igal Naor steals all of his scenes as Shlomo Zahary, a businessman and friend for many years to the Stein family. There are glimmers of humour to his character that are amusing, but there is also the sneaking feeling that he can’t be trusted. In smaller but still well-played parts, Lindsay Duncan as Hoyle’s estranged wife Anjelica and Tobias Menzies as Nessa’s bodyguard Nathaniel shine with what they’re given.
Relentlessly gripping, precisely filmed and well-acted, The Honourable Woman is a mini series that engages the brain with its mystery and twists.