TV | The Honourable Woman – Nothing is what it seems in this exceptional spy thriller
A tight close-up of a blade and the swish of metal on metal, but the camera pans out to show it’s only a wire bread basket and tongs. A waiter neatly lines the basket with a napkin and fills it with bread, laughing and joking with other staff in the kitchen. Meanwhile we hear Maggie Gyllenhaal’s haunting opening monologue: ‘Why do we trust people? Because of what they say? How they behave? What they do?’ We follow the waiter and his bread out into the restaurant, where moments later he will use the tongs to assassinate Zionist arms dealer, Eli Stein, in front of his children. The Honourable Woman arrives onto our screens with one of the most shocking opening scenes in television.
This instability, this confusion of the benign and lethal will characterise the rest of this eight-parter from writer/director Hugo Blick. From the outset you’re analysing each character: who side are they on? But you know already the answers will be nowhere near that simple.
In the twenty-nine years since their father’s death, the Stein children, Nessa (Gyllenhaal) and Ephra (Andrew Buchan), have turned their father’s company around; using it to improve communication networks and education in the Palestinian territories. Yet inevitably this is a world of intrigue and secrecy, and by the end of the first episode, you’re knee-deep in a series of sinister goings-on.
At the helm is Maggie Gyllenhaal as the, newly honoured, Baroness Stein. Her performance may well be a career-defining one. We know Gyllenhaal is good, but before now she has never been given the opportunity to demonstrate just how good. Nessa is the pinnacle of composure, masterfully handling the media glare with heartfelt yet placating sound bites. A perfectly agreeable figure of controversy. Gyllenhaal’s English accent is crystal-cut, at first you think there’s something of the over-enunciated Zellweger to it. But it’s all part of the impeccable public Nessa, for whom everything is careful and controlled. Then halfway through the episode, for a moment, she cracks. Nessa’s polished porcelain doll crumbles and inside is a trembling, sobbing child. There are hints of promise from other characters but in this opener it is all about Gyllenhaal.
Blick expertly deals with the exposition and introduction of so many characters. Complex storylines such as this often drag and get bogged down in the laborious detail. Yet while one struggles to remember the names of the characters at first, the initial obscurity and intrigue is satisfying and compelling, rather than overwhelming and confusing.
For substantial female roles, television is thundering ahead of mainstream cinema, and An Honourable Woman is no exception. A domain traditionally so inhabited by men, the spy thriller, can be a bleak place for women, but here that is not the case. Importantly it doesn’t seem contrived to be so, to be ticking boxes with “strong female characters”, it just seems like real life, where all women are fully-formed characters. With seven episodes left to go, I’m already dreading the end, when this exemplary spectacle will no longer grace our screens.
Photo property of BBC