'The Honorable Woman' intrigues behind Middle East backdrop

The Sundance Channel

By Alec Stern, Senior Arts Editor
Published August 6, 2014

When SundanceTV and UK-based BBC Two teamed up with writer-director Hugo Blick on the eight-hour miniseries “The Honorable Woman,” July 2014 couldn’t have proven to be a more timely release date. Set in the Middle East against the backdrop of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, “The Honorable Woman” is a welcome departure from typical summer fare like “Falling Skies” or “Sharknado 2: The Second One.” Unlike its seasonal companions, this smart, engaging thriller is in a unique position to not only entertain but also spark a dialogue, encouraging its audience to remain informed and educated on both sides of the decades-old struggle, just as the series strives to do.

The Honorable Woman

Miniseries Premiere
Sundance Channel
Thursdays at 10 p.m.

Academy Award nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal (“The Dark Knight”) is the best she’s ever been as Nessa Stein, a British philanthropist of Israeli descent who inherited her father’s company years after witnessing his murder as a young child. After a colleague’s suicide and later, a kidnapping, Nessa’s limits are pushed to the edge while her mysterious past is pulled back into focus. Beyond that, the first installment plays it extremely coy, posing many more questions rather than delivering answers, explanations or time to digest. And Blick’s sly direction only encourages the general sense of disarray and confusion.

Intriguing and perplexing to a fault, “The Honorable Woman” suffers from tonal inconsistencies too jarring to ignore. An angsty mid-episode montage (accompanied by the always-welcome yet admittedly out-of-place Radiohead track “How to Disappear Completely”) juxtaposes the sleek action sequence that follows. Impactful separately though strange together, each isn’t without its merits. But the classic ‘90s rock band takes you too far out of the narrative, while the subsequent scenes, which wouldn’t seem out of place in a 007 flick, pull you back in too quickly.

Despite this lapse, most of the episode is tactfully constructed, with all of the series’ moving parts converging in a swift, satisfying cliffhanger. Even more, Gyllenhaal's Nessa is as quickly developing as she is moving up the ranks of TV’s most complex female characters — in the vein of Virginia Johnson (of Showtime’s “Masters of Sex”) and Claire Underwood (of Netflix’s “House of Cards”). Nessa’s wit is undeniable and her capabilities far outshine the men who surround her. Together with Blick’s writing and Gyllenhaal’s performance — both executed with finesse and patience —“The Honorable Woman” will undoubtedly forge its place onto year-end “best lists” and into the awards conversation.

Also working in its favor, the Sundance miniseries is not only focused on its titular woman, but the women who surround her; it’s something particularly refreshing for a gritty series about business and war. Whereas the male characters are painted rather poorly — from Ephra (Andrew Buchan, “Broadchurch”), Nessa’s mild-mannered brother over whom she inherits the family business, to Shlomo (Yigal Naor, “House of Saddam”), the oafish, loud-mouthed professional who loses out on a major contract — “The Honorable Woman’s” female characters are far more dimensional. Alongside Gyllenhaal, Lubna Azabal (“Paradise Now”) and Eve Best (“Nurse Jackie”) are key pieces of the ensemble. Janet McTeer (“Damages”) also stars, though she does not appear in the first episode.

“The Honorable Woman” leaves viewers with a lot to look forward to. The questions presented serve as a substantial starting point, while the journey is already proving to be an exciting and thought-provoking one. As real life tensions continue to escalate, “The Honorable Woman” can only strive to capture some of the intricacies of the struggle. Luckily, through the eyes of Nessa Stein, there is real potential for the series to demonstrate fairness and objectivity, transcending the bounds of espionage thrillers and culminating in something truly meaningful.