Sad-eyed lady: Maggie Gyllenhaal as Nessa Stein
Show Hide image

A walking target: The Honourable Woman on BBC2

Nothing on telly is going to be this good for some time to come.

The Honourable Woman
BBC2

I saw the first episode of Hugo Blick’s new eight-part series, The Honourable Woman (Thursdays, 9pm), a while ago; the BBC held a ritzy screening in a hotel at which poor Maggie Gyllenhaal appeared in full evening dress only to be greeted by the sight of dozens of TV hacks (and a few minor celebrities) looking mildly crumpled in their jeans. At the time, I was gobsmacked by it. I watched open-mouthed, anxiety and amazement combining to induce in me, once the hour was up, the kind of hunger hotel canapés could do nothing to assuage (I ate six as I ran for the door and then headed swiftly in the direction of the nearest steak). But would it hold up on a small screen?

In your service, I watched it again a few days ago and, yes, I was every bit as gripped. The second episode – I watched that in your service, too – contains one or two bum notes (the first has none). But the momentum, richness and complexity are maintained. The Honourable Woman will win every award going and when it ends in the final days of summer, its fans, who will be legion and messianic in its cause, will have to take up needlepoint or mah-jong. Nothing on telly is going to be this good for some time to come.

Nessa Stein (Gyllenhaal, with a very good British accent) is a vastly rich and influential woman. She runs a multinational business empire, inherited from her father, Eli, a “lion of Israel” who was assassinated when she was a girl, but she also does good works: terror, she believes, thrives in poverty, for which reason she is determined to lay fibre-optic cables all over the West Bank, the better to connect all the hospitals and schools that she helped to build. Thanks to this, she has just been ennobled by the British government and is now known as Lady Stein of Tilbury in the county of Essex.

However, she has enemies and dangerous secrets; both are about to make their presence felt in her life. This is inescapable. In one sense, her elaborate security detail and even the sealed panic room in which she sleeps – it lies at the centre of her stuccoed London house, a prison cell inside a gilded cage – are utterly futile. On her alabaster forehead, just beneath her gamine fringe, there is a target. Someone, somewhere, will surely hit it soon.

Assassinations, kidnappings, MI6, the FBI, flashbacks to Rafah in the Gaza Strip – such a lot is going on and yet Blick’s script never feels overloaded. He makes demands of the viewer with long speeches, opaque conversations and teasing, highly choreographed sequences in which characters move deliberately around London like chess pieces on a board but the suspense is always enough to keep you onside.

Every detail is perfect (Blick directed, too), from the stoop of Nessa’s father in the old home movies she watches to the way she eats her TV supper, her salad plucked between thumb and index finger. People under-react rather than overreact to horror, fear having invaded their hearts so long ago; they’re weary with it, dead behind the eyes. And all of this is shot through with a kind of bottomless plangency, for we know that even if things do turn out right for Nessa, her brother, Ephra (Andrew Buchan), and their Palestinian friend Atika (Lubna Azabal), the situation will never be resolved – or not in my lifetime. As our new baroness likes to joke at fundraising dinners, if a bunch of earth-destroying aliens asked the Israelis and the Palestinians to give up their arms, well, it would be the little green men you’d wind up feeling sorry for.

The performances – with the exception of Janet McTeer, who appears in episode two and seems to think she’s in Johnny English with Rowan Atkinson, are extremely fine. The quiet solemnity of Buchan’s and Gyllenhaal’s performances suggests both their characters’ great privilege (they seem embarrassed by their incredible wealth) and their miserable fates (a lifetime worrying about what might happen in the moments between the front door and the back seat of a bulletproof Mercedes). And special plaudits must go to Stephen Rea as an about-to-be-retired British spy. He puts in a master class in the patrician, the pernickety and the downright peculiar.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

BBC
Show Hide image

Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit