TV Review: ‘The Honorable Woman’

The Honorable Woman Sundance TV Review

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.

TV Review: 'The Honorable Woman'

(Miniseries; SundanceTV, Thurs. July 31, 10 p.m.)


Filmed in the U.K. and Morocco by Drama Republic and Eight Rooks.


Executive producer, Greg Brenman; producers, Abi Bach, Hugo Blick; writer-director, Blick; camera, George Steel, Zac Nicholson; production designer, Chris Roope; editor, Polly Hill; music, Martin Phipps; casting, Doreen Jones. 60 MIN.


Maggie Gyllenhaal, Stephen Rea, Janet McTeer, Lindsay Duncan, Andrew Buchan, Eve Best, Lubna Azbal, Tobias Menzies, Igal Naor

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  1. Jack Johnson says:

    I agree with the final paragraph of the review.

  2. anne scott says:

    Honorable Woman is TV for grownups,. This is a deeply intelligent political and psychological thriller, brilliantly plotted, paced and layered and addictive for news and political junkies, lovers of Graham Greene, and anyone with more than a passing interest in the post WW2 Middle East.

  3. I really wanted to love this and slogged through the first episode, thinking we were just getting set up for better things to come. Halfway through the second episode, I couldn’t stand it anymore and deleted the series.

  4. jason says:

    I agree with the critic, self important and Pretentious nausea inducing.

  5. Yvonne says:

    ok here’s the deal this is one of those issues that i get so frustrated with, but having actually studied the history of religion i know that men have more to do with what most of the world believes than what any actual holy person said – how does something get recorded or written down without an actual pen or pencil? who’s hand actually wrote it down? People were always involved in deciding what was sacred and true even though they said it was all the word of God – Politicians and clergymen have decided what’s true and what’s not for centuries – Is there anybody out there naive enough to believe that every word of their sacred scripture came only from their God? which by the way is the same God for all of the 3 great religions that hate each other – THE SAME GOD!

  6. Mary Daly says:

    Why Maggie Gylenhall, who, in my opinion, is rather wooden? Plenty of better British actresses. Story is rather slow moving. Not the best thing the BBC has done. Many people I know have given up on it.

    • Fed-up viewer says:

      You mentioned people you know giving up on it. I’m someone you don’t know whose given up at episode 5. I’ve never been irritated enough to comment on a series before; but it is totally ruined by Maggie Glyhall – calling her “rather wooden” is too kind.

  7. Dunstan says:

    While well-cast and directed with top-notch production values, this show is mostly coma-inducing. I, too, have watched the first four episodes and SPOILER ALERT, once we know that Nessa is Kasim’s birth mother, and that the Palestinian fighter who raped/impregnanted her is the one behind kidnapping Kasim in London, I was left thinking ‘who cares?’ I’m not sure I’ll stick around for the last four episodes. This show doesn’t hold a candle to such recent UK limited run series as “Broadchurch” and “Happy Valley.” Watch those instead.

  8. Goodbyenoway says:

    I’ve been watching The Honourable Woman for 4 weeks now and it is one of the best things I’ve seen all year. The reviewer is clueless. This is far superior to Top of the Lake which was incomprehensible as you couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying.

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