When a family member is kidnapped, Anglo-Israeli arms heiress-turned-philanthropist Nessa Stein struggles with the past and present as her Arab-Israeli telecommunications initiative is manipulated by dark forces beyond her control. Though Nessa (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan) to lean on, the ghosts of Nessa’s own kidnapping and the murder of their Israeli nationalist father with a pair of sharpened salad tongs haunt them both.
Written and directed by Hugo Blick for BBC2, “The Honorable Woman” never preaches or diagnoses idealistic solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead, it unravels hour-by-hour, fabulously outdoing its narrative debauchery at every turn.
“The Honorable Woman” succeeds in stoking paranoia without bitterness. What makes Blick’s directing and writing so fresh is that it is constantly sidestepping the banal and the well-trodden. The subject matter, the constantly dire political situation between Palestine and Israel, could have been centered on tragic love between opposing parties. It could have been about politicians and the cynical spies who do their bidding. But instead of moralizing or devolving into an action adventure tale set in, as opposed to about the conflict, “The Honorable Woman” approaches a well-known subject through the eyes of corporations, nonprofit heads and ambitious spies who compete for selfish reasons to turn the page in Palestine. In this story about the complexity of geopolitics through the eyes the espionage and telecommunications industries, Blick encourages us to use more grown-up emotions for characters stuck in the middle of a conflict marked by pettiness, immaturity and stubbornness.
For the Steins, the goals of peace and development allow for quiet betrayals and buried secrets. For the British, Israeli and Palestinian spies, action for peace is the vehicle for advancing and dissolving clandestine partnerships. Weekly chess games between Hayden-Hoyle and his Israeli counterpart show how competitors can make good friends. Even the clear “bad guys,” always reminders of our moral clarity, provide us no comfort with their demise. The deaths of evil men never undo prior misdeeds, they just prevent further ones. This is Nessa’s thesis as she and her brother Ephra lead their father’s former arms company into its future as an Arab-Israeli telecom non-profit. The betrayals are constant, varied and often accidental. Decisions made either years ago during her kidnapping in Gaza or seconds ago in the boardroom put Nessa’s life, mission and family at risk, threatening her emotional stoicism and patient, sad-eyed optimism. Gyllenhaal’s Nessa is a poised wreck; well-bred and articulate while also naïve and occasionally overconfident. Her trust in business partners is almost unshakable; she bruises deeply whenever their loyalty to her dream of a bloodless Middle East wavers. This complete trust is puzzling, yet oddly poetic coming from someone who sleeps in a panic room. Gyllenhaal keeps us believing in the feasibility and purity of her struggle, without ceding agency to handsome men with guns. With a flawless English accent, Gyllenhaal turns what could have been a wooden, morally retentive upper-crust plot-driver into a gripping and thoroughly entertaining woman. I often found myself on the edge of my seat waiting to see what Nessa felt next, a rare experience reserved only for the most watchable and skillful of actors. Gyllenhaal’s Nessa is honorable, without descending into yawn-inducing sainthood, making her a perfectly believable pawn on the frontlines of Blick’s clever and taught espionage thriller.