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A Timely New Spy Thriller Doesn't Over-Simplify Arab-Israeli Politics

Robert Viglasky/SundanceTV

The opening credits of “The Honorable Woman,” a British miniseries premiering on SundanceTV tonight, seem designed to convince you it’s a “Homeland” spin-off: all flickering images, childhood photographs, dramatic music, snippets of Arabic audio. Sub in London for Washington, Maggie Gyllenhaal for Claire Danes, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the U.S. War on Terror, add a John le Carré sheen, and you’ve got a new must-see TV political thriller. But “Homeland” fans (or ex-fans) looking for a new fix will find something slower and more deliberate, a tense psychological study about the possibilities of reconciliation and amends. 

This is a star vehicle for Gyllenhaal (and her impeccable British accent), who gives one of the best performances of her career playing Baroness Nessa Stein, an Anglo-Israeli businesswoman whose father was an infamous Israeli arms manufacturer. As a child, Nessa and her brother Ephra witnessed her father’s assassination in a London restaurant—we witness it too, in the startling opening moments of the premiere. Twenty-nine years later, determined to make amends for their family’s part in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Nessa and Ephra (Andrew Buchan) have transformed the family business into a force for economic growth in the region, funding schools in Ramallah and laying down broadband cables through the West Bank. "Terror thrives in poverty. It dies in wealth,” Nessa says in a speech about her business. 

Nothing’s so simple, of course. As Nessa announces the Palestinian contractor she’s chosen for the projects’ latest phase, we see that same man wrap himself in his national flag and hang himself—the second death within the episode’s first ten minutes. 

What happens next—intrigue, espionage, kidnapping, murder—in this eight-episode series is too confusing for any easy summary. The mysterious suicide of her chief contractor places Nessa and her family at the center of a classic spy plot, with Stephen Rea as Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (now that’s a British name), a Smiley-esque MI5 officer on the verge of retirement, and Janet McTeer as his boss. Nessa’s psychological unraveling is accompanied by many references to something that happened to her in Gaza eight years earlier, some trauma she’s determined to keep secret. Her only confidant is Atika (Ludna Aziba), her nieces’ Gazan nanny. In flashbacks, Nessa’s eager, idealistic. As an adult, she sleeps in a stark white panic room. Gyllenhaal plays her with a determined composure, as a woman who has spent years in a public performance, repressing the natural empathy in her open face. 

Her restrained performance fits perfectly with the show’s cool, opaque style. In the last two years, Sundance has made a name for itself as the poster child for “slow TV”—“Rectify,” “Top of the Lake,” and “The Returned” were and are programming that’s contemplative, measured, and carefully composed. Written and directed by Hugo Blick (who created previous BBC miniseries “The Shadow Line”), “The Honorable Woman” continues that nascent tradition. At times, the deliberately enigmatic show seems made up of a series of still-lifes, a carefully arranged tableau with portentous classical music as soundtrack. The stylized filmmaking leads to beautiful scenes (the entire opening sequence, for example), but often feels overly arranged. And the self-seriousness seeps into some of the writing. Each episode begins with the same solemn voiceover: Maggie Gyllenhaal asking, “Who do you trust? How do you know?”

Arriving in the middle of an increasingly bloody war, “The Honorable Woman” is far more timely than Blick or anyone else could have intended while filming the miniseries last year. Not all thrillers can survive this kind of proximity to current events—see the third season of “Homeland,” which centered on a CIA plot to assassinate the Iranian president, right as Iran-U.S. relations in the real world were cooling for the first time in decades. The headlines put “Homeland”’s narrative acrobatics in an even worse light; the out-of-date plot lines felt like a failure of imagination. “The Honorable Woman” avoids these problems by coming at the conflict sideways, depicting not the main political players, but the businessmen who observe and profit from war. 

In interviews, both Blick and Gyllenhaal have stayed deliberately neutral, decrying the violence without apportioning blame. Within the series itself, speeches and debates are similarly relegated to background; we hear them on the radio or at dinner parties, not out of our protagonists’ mouths. Instead, the camera dwells on images of past loss, both personal and national: bloodstained dresses and family portraits of Holocaust survivors. (The show also uses some plodding, clichéd dialogue to do the same narrative work. “The story you’ve just stepped into stretches back thousands of years,” one Israeli diplomat tells Hugh, like the teacher of Middle East 101.)  

What’s less clear is how the show wants us to look at the Stein family’s transformation into altruistic social entrepreneurs. In next week’s episode, Nessa’s sister-in-law offers one answer. “First your father wants to save Israel and now your sister's trying to save the Middle East,” she says, accusing the Stein family of self-serving activism, first for Zionism and now for peace. “It was a vanity. It’s all vanity.” Nessa’s motivations are more complicated and more sincere than that, not that it helps her. In “The Honorable Woman”—and in the Middle East in general—good intentions only take you so far.