Representing SundanceTV’s latest stab at a prestige miniseries, “The Honorable Woman” places Maggie Gyllenhaal at the center of what’s otherwise an old-fashioned British political thriller, centered around the combustible quagmire of the Middle East. The first half of this brilliantly cast, rather ploddingly paced, eight-part production is classy but only periodically eventful, an understated affair that can be admired for its ambition and elevated brow, but which fails to create much urgency about hanging around long enough to unlock its mysteries. If the channel’s hoping for another “Top of the Lake,” “Woman” doesn’t rise to that level.
Gyllenhaal plays Nessa Stein, the British-born-and-raised daughter of an Israeli arms procurer assassinated in front of her as a child. Now an adult, she has transformed her father’s corporation into a technology firm determined to use its influence to spur peace by bringing its services to the West Bank, working with her brother (Andrew Buchan), who sports a chronically pained expression, for reasons that gradually become less murky.
Much of the mystery flows from an earlier trip Nessa took with her interpreter (Lubna Azbal), resulting in both of them being taken hostage by terrorists. What happened unfolds slowly (or more accurately, sloo-o-oowly), but its repercussions continue to register in present-day acts of espionage, drawing the attention of an aging spy (Stephen Rea) on his last case who, world-weary as he is, would very much like to go out with a win.
Rea is only one of the topnotch British players, including Janet McTeer and Lindsay Duncan, who pop up as the story progresses. Still, the focus is largely on Gyllenhaal, who effortlessly adopts a British accent, and portrays a woman who is a mass of contradictions.
Produced, written and directed by Hugo Blick for the BBC, “The Honorable Woman” is cut from the same cloth as efforts like “State of Play” and “The Last Enemy,” where all motives are invariably suspect, the government is ruthless if not corrupt and very little is as it seems. Those qualities, however, have to be brewed just right to sustain interest, and the fragmented nature of the storytelling forces the audience to make a heroically sustained effort to stay engaged.
Having now seen all of the project, it’s fair to say Blick’s rumination on the intractable nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could hardly be more timely, and this production contains far more nuance than FX’s more simply constructed and blunt “Tyrant.”
Yet if there is power and poignance in the resolution, the pacing remains an issue, especially once the details of Nessa’s incarceration become clear. There’s also an aura of self-importance that borders on pretentiousness, as well as a rather familiar takeaway that there’s very little the U.S. can do right pertaining to the region. (Indeed, some of those who sit through the entire miniseries will doubtless chafe at the “blame America” aspects of the story.)
As one of the characters notes ruefully regarding the fragile and perilous nature of a doing business in the Middle East, “Enemies is what you make.”
Serious and ambitious, “The Honorable Woman” certainly shouldn’t evoke enmity. The problem, rather, is that it doesn’t provide enough thrills or momentum to completely reward the viewing commitment of its friends.
Note: This post has been updated from an earlier version.