The eight-episode BBC miniseries The Honourable Woman (2014) may well be a spy fiction masterpiece. The only reason I say “may” is that it’s so profoundly complex I’m feeling awestruck, which makes me distrust my first impression. Even so, I’m certain of one thing: this is must-see spy TV, a series I will surely watch again.
Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the Anglo-Israeli head of a telecommunications company with an ambitious vision: a joint Israeli-Palestinian project to lay data cable in the West Bank. She’s an idealist whose quest to improve literal communication in the Middle East has taken on symbolic importance, serving as a beacon of hope in a troubled region. But Nessa also has a dark, troubled past. Eight years previously, she and her translator Atika (Lubna Azabal) were kidnapped and held for ransom during a risky journey into Gaza. They made it out, but why did they go, what happened while they were there, and how did they escape? This mysterious backstory is gradually revealed in flashback even as new intrigues play out in the present. With the third phase of the cable project about to begin, the Palestinian contractor the Steins hired to undertake the work dies. A replacement is needed, but finding one is a politically fraught process, and it’s just the tip of the intrigue iceberg. Various interests secretly clash over the project, each looking to leverage it to their own ends. With the best of intentions, Nessa is caught in the middle, slowly and inexorably torn apart by her ideals, even as she refuses to stop standing up for them.
The series is written, produced, and directed by Hugo Blick, and it definitely has the consistent tone and vision of an auteur project. The story is dense, patient, and unforgivingly convoluted, but ultimately comes into sharp focus. The direction is artful, taut, and brimming with suspense. It’s less an episodic series than a visual novel broken up into eight chapters, and if the title invokes John le Carré, it earns the comparison. Meanwhile, in terms of its visual story-telling techniques, it conjures the bleak artistry of Breaking Bad, scenes loaded with nerve-wracking tension, raw emotion, and explosive violence.
The acting is uniformly superb, especially from Gyllenhaal, whose nuanced, shellshocked performance as Nessa is fearless and powerful. I was also impressed by Azabal, who is convincing as Nessa’s tough, mysterious confidant. Meanwhile, there’s an intricate swirl of interplay between the various intelligence agencies looking to leverage the situation: Israeli, Palestinian, American, and especially British interests figure prominently. Here, the outwardly bumbling but quietly competent Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea), head of MI6’s Middle East desk, serves as the clever outsider, piecing together the puzzle as we watch over his shoulder. Hayden-Hoyle is a Smileyesque figure, whose subtly charismatic turn is both amusing and rallying. The supporting cast bursts with talent: Andrew Buchan, Tobias Menzies, Igal Naor, Katherine Parkinson, Janet McTeer, Eve Best, and Genevieve O’Reilly all hold the stage well in support. If that seems like an unusually high number of major female characters, it should; on top of all its other considerable assets, this series presents an excellent roster of female characters, most of whom figure just as prominently in the story as the men. Hollywood would do well to study this series, as I think you’d probably have to pick through ten to fifteen American spy movies to find this many strong female roles.
Upshot: The Honourable Woman is gripping, polished, enjoyably challenging stuff. It’s certainly a must-see show for spy buffs, if not also simply for lovers of exceptional television.