The Honourable Woman: Trapped Inside the Feedback Loop

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Nessa Stein in The Honourable Woman, a miniseries spy thrillerLike the Cold War, the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the dramatist’s gift that keeps on giving. Nowhere else can an author, screenwriter or filmmaker find such a stew of moral ambiguity, seething hatreds, political misbehavior, skullduggery, conflicting loyalties, and flat-out bad behavior in which to marinate his or her stories. It’s nearly impossible to overcook a plot set against this backdrop; real life is always more outlandish and extreme.

The limited-run series The Honourable Woman, a BBC2/SundanceTV co-production, is the latest entry in the long list of films and TV shows to mine that particular vein of pitch-black paranoia ironically known as the Holy Land.

Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Dark Knight and everywhere indie) and her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan, Broadchurch) shared a unique formative experience: watching their Israeli arms-industrialist father being murdered in a posh London hotel restaurant. Now grown and living privileged lives in London, they’ve tried to steer the Stein Group into less lethal markets, bringing universities and broadband Internet to the West Bank. Of course, the self-reinforcing feedback loop that is the Middle East delights in punishing good intentions. Various entrenched interests on all sides—yes, more than two—need to bend Nessa to their wills. Following an unpopular business deal and an untimely suicide (or was it?), things become nasty and messy in short order.

Nessa and Ephra are both damaged individuals. Nessa sleeps in her London mansion’s high-tech safe room and forms unhealthy relationships with her bodyguards.

She appears to have only one good friend in the world: Epha’s Palestinian nanny Atika (Lubna Azabal, Body of Lies), on whose young son, Kasim, Nessa dotes. (Nessa and Atika appear to have a longer, deeper connection than Atika’s current station might suggest.) Yet while Nessa generally seems on the verge of going to pieces at any moment, she’s the hands-on president of the Stein Group, her good works have earned her a peerage, and she makes idealistic speeches all over the world.

Andrew Buchan as Ephra SteinAt least Ephra’s managed to piece together a semi-normal life (wife, children, charities). Yet he, too, is a wounded bird. He used to run the Stein Group until eight years ago, when he dropped the reins and fled without much explanation. He’s carrying on an affair with Atika while pregnant wife Rachel (Katherine Parkinson, Pirate Radio and The IT Crowd) is going into full mama-bear mode, trying to put up barricades around her present and future children to protect them from the fallout of being Steins. Ephra knows more than he should, and the wrong people seem to know he knows.

Stephen Rea as Hugh Hayden-Hoyle in The Honourable WomanWhile the Steins’ domestic issues simmer, other interested parties circle their nests. In addition to the inevitable Hamas and shadowy Israeli players, MI6 is involved in the guise of Julia Walsh, the agency’s scheming chief (Janet McTeer, The White Queen). She wants troublesome Nessa neutralized, but wants it done in such a way that MI6’s fingerprints aren’t on it. Her intended tool is almost-retired Middle East hand Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea, The Crying Game and The Good Shepherd), who has his own issues and agenda. The CIA is also scratching around the edges of whatever’s going on with that maybe-suicide.

The writing and direction (Hugo Blick, The Shadow Line) and acting are all top-notch, as you might expect from a BBC prestige production such as this. Gyllenhaal plays Nessa with the right balance of crystal and spring steel; when she lights out after the persons unknown who kidnap Kasim, you understand that it’s not her superhero moment, but rather an expression of blind panic at the prospect that someone else she loves is about to be hurt. Buchan is one part lost boy, one part a man on so many edges he doesn’t know which one to step on (much like his role in Broadchurch). Rea is a latter-day Smiley, quietly collecting other people’s secrets while submerging his own. Even Atika, the nanny, has a hidden side you won’t guess until it literally jumps out at you.

The Honourable Woman: Nanny Atika Halabi (Lubna Azabel) with Ephra's wife Rachel Stein (Katherine Parkinson)/ Photo: Robert Viglasky for BBC/Drama Republic
L-R: Ephra Stein’s nanny and lover Atika and his wife Rachel/ Photo: Robert Viglasky for BBC/Drama Republic

This isn’t 24. The plot unspools in its own time, in ways that are reminiscent of John Le Carré: drip by drip, detail by detail, a nod here, a message there, and by and by the small personal betrayals and half-lies become matters of national security, rippling out ever farther and curdling everything they touch. Conversations are often as much about what’s not said as about what is. The toxic nature of kept secrets drives the story. “Is your secret safe?” a threatening caller asks Nessa. No, there are no safe secrets here.

When there’s physical violence, it’s quick and sharp. These people don’t need guns or bombs to destroy each other; in most cases, the deadliest weapon used is a telephone. It’s a torture device, a betrayer of confidences, and an instrument of state power turned to personal ends.

In many ways, The Honourable Woman is reminiscent of a previous BBC/Sundance co-production: Top of the Lake, another moody, critically acclaimed, slow-paced story in which small bad acts add up to life-shattering consequences.

The Honourable Woman aired this year on BBC2 between July 3 and August 21, and on the Sundance Channel between July 31 and September 18. For a limited time, you can watch all eight episodes on the SundanceTV website, or on BBC2 iPlayer if you’re in the UK. If it’s not on Netflix yet, it probably will be soon.

If you think the most dangerous thing in the world can be two ambitious people talking in the back of a car, you should watch this series.

Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. A couple of the characters in The Honourable Woman could be refugees from his international thriller Doha 12, and there are several toxic secrets in his near-future thriller South. He tweets (@lcharnes) about scuba diving, shipwrecks, art crime and archaeology, among other things.