The Honourable Woman
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.