The Honorable Woman is ambitious and riveting
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Maggie Gyllenhaal (SundanceTV)
Maggie Gyllenhaal (SundanceTV)

The Honorable Woman is ambitious and riveting

SundanceTV’s new miniseries has star power and a lot of story to tell

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No one involved with The Honorable Woman has found a succinct way to describe to new viewers what it’s about. The promotional material’s logline describes it as “a wrenching tale of family, trust, and betrayal set against a fast-paced international backdrop of espionage and paranoia.” It’s advertising copy: punchy and ultimately useless. In part, the roundabout language appears to be motivated by a desire to keep the series’ secrets: Much of the suspense of the eight-part story comes from fact-finding missions into the unknown. In part, though, that’s because The Honorable Woman is vast. Hugo Blick’s project—he wrote, directed, and produced the whole thing—is nothing if not ambitious.

As a result, it’s almost necessarily a tad disappointing. The story lobs so many ideas into the air that it can’t possibly give them all a safe landing. But along the way to the ending, The Honorable Woman is enthralling—a beautiful, dark portrait of a woman against the backdrop of the continued conflict between Israel and Palestine. This series was made well before the recent flare-up in Gaza—but its timing, as grim news reports roll out of the region, is eerily impeccable.

As a limited-run series produced by the BBC, The Honorable Woman has some of that network’s finest work as its predecessors, with State Of Play and Top Of The Lake being the most relevant. The Honorable Woman is a hybrid of the two, marrying the politicized, taut action of the former with the specific mood of the story of one woman in the latter. Jane Campion and Hugo Blick’s style do not have much in common, but in both Top Of The Lake and The Honorable Woman, the auteurship colors the story almost as much as each iconoclastic protagonist does.

In The Honorable Woman, the protagonist is 36-year-old Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the British-Israeli daughter of an arms dealer and CEO of the company he founded, who in the first few moments of the miniseries is sworn into the House Of Lords. Nessa witnessed her father’s murder as a child, and the series starts the story in the same restaurant, 28 years later, as Nessa announces a business deal. That’s a small detail, but it speaks to one of The Honorable Woman’s primary motifs: a conscious looping back to spaces marked by the past. And because this is the story of a family stuck in psychological limbo between Israel and Palestine, most of those spaces are marked with blood.

The main problem with The Honorable Woman is not strength of performance—besides Gyllenhaal, the cast is rounded out by Stephen Rea, the intelligence officer who begins investigating the Stein family, and Lubna Azabal as Atika, the Palestinian nanny and confidant in Nessa’s brother’s employ. It’s that the story is more motivated by powerful images than by plot. Blick’s direction is at times astounding, so it’s easy to see why the series trends in that direction. (A scene from the first episode, which is also the main title card of the show, illustrates that perfectly: a queen chess piece falling off of a table, sliding across a chair, and somehow landing right side up, with a liquid grace that suggests it was all part of the design.)

But thematically, The Honorable Woman is sometimes a victim of its own vagueness. The “honor” of the title is probably Nessa’s, speaking to her desire to transform her own legacy into something better than her father’s—moving the Stein company from arms to schools and infrastructure. But that honor is rarely examined, just offered as fact. This is a shame, because Nessa is a fascinating character to focus on. She’s inherited her father’s business and turned it into a company that tries to bridge the gap between Palestine and Israel instead of bombarding it. But her attempt to be better—to be honorable—has left many scars. (One subtle but powerful detail is that despite her luxurious wealth, Nessa sleeps in a spartan panic room every night.) The audience is privy to startling detail about her psychological damage, but the story of her honor lacks richness.

Where the story pops is in the family dynamics between Nessa and those she holds dear: Her brother Ephra and his wife and daughters live nearby in London; their nanny, Atika, has a son who also lives with them. Atika is the dark horse of the story. Where Nessa’s character is a subject of public discussion, Atika’s is a private affair. And she is as much the honorable woman of the title as Nessa is—sometimes more so, as the story moves forward.

The Honorable Woman wants to tell two or three big stories in its slim eight hours. There’s a story here about national identities—how they’re inherited and how they’re passed on. There’s a story here about being powerful, and deciding what to do with that power. There’s a story here about how regional politics have been hijacked by world powers. There’s even a story here about wide-ranging surveillance, like the kind the NSA does. The Honorable Woman balances the personal relationships of a few people with broad ideas of personhood and justice.

The result, at times, is a frustrating vagueness. It reads a little like hand-waving used to distract from plotlines that can’t quite be resolved. But that vagueness is simultaneously enticing, drawing the viewer into the puzzle of the show, a game of smoke and mirrors lit by memory and secrecy and conflicting ideas of nationalism. (The title sequence of the show, like The Wire, has footage from episodes in the future. The process of watching is a process of watching the montage’s meaning become clearer and clearer. The final image is striking, but not nearly as engaging as the journey to it.) The series is ambitious and shaggy—those two go hand-in-hand—but despite its blurry spots, The Honorable Woman is hard not to watch all the way through. The story sucks viewers in farther and farther down a rabbit hole that does not end.

The Honorable Woman doesn’t have to tell all the stories it does; indeed, it would have been sturdier if it didn’t. But there’s something powerful about its decision to sweep wide, to offer glimpses of small personal struggles in Britain, Israel, and Palestine, and to show how they all interconnect in the our world of multinational corporations and global economies. It’s chosen to be a little less solid in order to be a little more ambiguous. And if the work itself is not wholly compelling, that choice certainly is.


Created by: Hugo Blick
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Stephen Rea, Andrew Buchan, Lubna Azabal, Katherine Parkinson
Debuts: Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern on SundanceTV
Format: Eight-part limited-run miniseries
Full series watched for review

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