What does an Oscar-nominated actress, a man with an incredibly posh name, and the Beeb have in common? You won’t guess it, so here’s the answer. They’re all involved in The Honourable Woman, a new eight part drama on BBC Two.
Hugo Blick, a man known for his incredibly complicated plots, writes and directs the series. It doesn’t come more complicated than the Israel-Palestine conflict either, which is what the series revolves around. It centres on Maggie Gyllenhaal playing Nessa Stein, the daughter of a murdered arms dealer nicknamed The Sword of Israel. She’s determined to use her wealth and influence to end the Israel-Palestine conflict. Throw in some old-fashioned spies, the kind who talks in code over chess games, and you have a perfect hour of drama. The show couldn’t come at a more crucial time either, given the recent murder of three Israeli teens and the rapidly escalating situation there.
Let’s just get the obvious out-of-the-way first. Maggie Gyllenhaal hasn’t put a foot wrong in her entire career. She’s one of the most gifted (and criminally underrated) actresses. It’s no different here; even her English accent is perfect. Gyllenhaal is particularly outstanding as a woman who has spent her life worrying about if the walk between her car and her front door will be her last. In an unusually dramatic role, Katherine Parkinson (The IT Crowd) shows she should do more than hang out making jokes in a basement with nerds. There’s an incredible understatement to the acting. Minus a couple of assassinations, there’s no huge dramatics here. Love, hate, and shady dealings are done with a look and a gesture. Loneliness is eating salad between forefinger and thumb and sleeping in a panic room at the heart of your home.
Despite Nessa Stein’s wealth and power, you won’t envy her. She has enemies and she keeps making more. That’s about the only clear thing Blick tells us in the first episode of the show. His script reveals next to nothing, but hints at enough to make sure you’ll be watching next week. Everyone has a secret waiting to be exposed, that much is obvious, the thrill will come in the slow-burning reveal of who knows what about whom. Spies are thrown against business owners, thrown against humanitarians and assassins. Besides, if slowness isn’t your bag then there’s an ending with such a cliff-hanger you’ll be counting down the seconds until the next episode.
Mr Blick guides but never condescends to the audience. He’s a very clever man and expects us to keep up with him as he shifts between characters. The conflict in the Middle East is complicated so obviously the implications of it are too. Anything other than what we get in this episode would be ham-fisted. There are brutal flashbacks to Rafah set eight years before the main drama. Whilst this is a little confusing, you should trust in a man who’s created a show like this to reward you for your hard work in figuring out exactly what is going on. Impressive as it is on its first go, it’ll be more so when all the episodes have aired, leaving you free to watch one after the other so you don’t have to hold the subtle double meanings or the name and position of every character in your head for a week.
The Honourable Woman has set itself up as something not be missed. The slow pace and intelligent, complicated plot will be more familiar to viewers of American TV, but we finally have something to show off when there’s a complaint that British TV can’t match it.
Watch the first episode on iPlayer, and catch the rest of the series on Thursdays, BBC 2, 9pm.