TV Review: “The Honourable Woman” – An Oblique British Throwback

Written by Spencer Sterritt August 11, 2014

The Honourable Woman

Spy stories used to be different. Back in the 50’s and 60’s there were men like James Bond with the fast cars and the gadgets, but even his stories (both in print and film) were anchored by investigation and intelligence. Most spy stories now, from recent James Bond films to the Bourne franchise and the Mission: Impossible series, are more about the gun play than the verbal sparring. “The Honourable Woman,” a recent BBC import airing on BBC 2 and the Sundance Channel, harkens back to classic John Le Carre and Graham Green spy novels of the 60’s with a focus on simmering, slow burn conversations rather than quick action scenes.

“The Honourable Woman” concerns itself with the very prescient topic of Israel and Palestine. Anglo-Israeli Nessa (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan) Stein inherited the Stein Foundation after their Israel-supporting father was assassinated when they were young. In the present, the kidnapping of their nanny’s son leads back to an incident 8 years before when Nessa and her translator were kidnapped, and all of the secrets spawned by that incident.

“It’s a wonder we trust anyone at all.”

There is something acutely British in “The Honourable Woman’s” sensibilities in a very classically restrained way. The most recent analog I can think of is “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” which was a riveting spy story that relied on misinformation and hushed conversations more than torture scenes or car chases. Nearly everyone involved in the conspiracy following the kidnapping is involved in government politics in some way and showdowns always occur in tasteful and sparse government rooms. The father of the kidnapped boy becomes a major issue in the fourth episode “The Ribbon Cutter”, in the way that a bastard child would on an old British manners drama.

The Honourable Woman

Director and writer Hugo Blick (famed for “The Shadow Line”) could have created this show at any time, and the context of the Israel and Palestine conflict still would have created a complex backdrop for the story to take place. Watched in relation to the newest bout of violence in the region, which seems to have finally (and hopefully) grabbed most people’s attention, it is notable that he does not take a particular side in the conflict. The Stein’s are Anglo-Israeli, but their heritage is not an endorsement of Israel, especially since both of them can be heinous bastards. Six episodes have aired in the UK so far (and three in America on Sundance TV) and not once in those six episodes does the series get into the contentious issue of why the two sides fight. It is more concerned with how people fight, and the damage any sort of conflict does to a person and to a family.

“Secrets are weird. People think you share them, but you don’t. They have two sides: Either you own them or they own you.”

Also in homage to the great spy stories of the 60’s and 70’s, “The Honourable Woman” is incredibly oblique as to what is actually happening, a lot like “Syriana.” Crucial background is parceled out in code and double meaning, and many plots play out without context until an episode or two later. Some plots, such as the death of an FBI agent in the second episode, have still not been resolved. This is a contained, true mini-series, so even though everything will (hopefully) make sense in the end, it requires a lot of patience to parse all of the double speak and determine how all of the various plots – such as one about a Stein funded school in Israel – play into the larger mystery.

The Honourable Woman

They certainly don’t make thrillers like this anymore, and “The Honourable Woman” is not for everyone. So far the most action has come at the end of the first episode, and it was a foot chase through a park remarkably devoid of quick cuts and speed. However, with some careful watching and a shrewd eye for false information, watching “The Honourable Woman” becomes a rewarding experience for fans of the spy genre.

My Rating: 7/10


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About Spencer Sterritt

Spencer Sterritt

Spencer Sterritt: former Editor-In-Chief for We Eat Films, future President of the Men With Beards Club, and hopefully candidate for ruler of the world.

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