'The Honorable Woman': A mystery rooted in Mideast

Maggie Gyllenhaal & Andrew Buchan in "The Honorable Woman."
Maggie Gyllenhaal & Andrew Buchan in "The Honorable Woman."
Posted: August 01, 2014

* THE HONORABLE WOMAN. 10

tonight, SundanceTV.

IF IT'S POSSIBLE for a TV show to be too timely, then "The Honorable Woman," which makes its U.S. debut tonight on SundanceTV, arrives at the worst of times.

An eight-episode limited series already underway on Britain's BBC2 (where they spell it "Honourable"), it stars Maggie Gyllenhaal ("Hysteria") as newly named Baroness Nessa Stein, whose late father helped arm Israel and who's now trying to use his company to help forge peace between the Israelis and Palestinians by less lethal means.

We can all see how that's going, but if you can put aside current events - and your opinions - for an hour a week, "The Honorable Woman" will reward you with a twisty tale of family secrets and political intrigue populated by some of the best actors you'll see anywhere this summer, including Stephen Rea, Janet McTeer, Lindsay Duncan ("Rome"), Tobias Menzies ("Game of Thrones") and Andrew Buchan ("Jane Eyre") as Nessa's brother Ephra.

Good as it is, "The Honorable Woman" won't cure cancer, much less solve the problems of the Middle East, though like FX's "Tyrant," it shows why solutions broached at Western dinner tables or on Facebook probably won't achieve peace, either.

Even more than "Tyrant," with its focus on an Americanized Arab - played by a non-Arab British actor, Adam Rayner - "The Honorable Woman" is a story about the Mideast that's really about how the West views it.

Nevertheless, you'll want to keep a close eye on Lubna Azabal, the Belgian actress who plays Atika, a Palestinian whose central place in Nessa and Ephra's lives is part of a larger mystery.

I loved Katherine Parkinson ("Doc Martin") as Ephra's heavily pregnant wife, Rachel, who gets one of the series' better speeches in next week's episode, telling her husband: "There's a big streak of vanity running through your family, Ephra, and it appears to be growing. First your father wants to save Israel and now your sister's trying to save the Middle East. What's your plan for my daughters? Is Kryptonite involved?"

"Who do you trust? How do you know?" asks Nessa in a voice-over in tonight's premiere, which flashes back 29 years to the assassination of her father, Eli Stein, who's killed while out to lunch with his two young children.

Addressing a skin-tone difference between Gyllenhaal and the young actress who plays young Nessa that had triggered at least one not-outlandish theory, the show's writer and director, Hugo Blick, told reporters earlier this month that "she'd gone on holiday . . . and when she was cast, she was very much paler. And when she came back, she was very much darker." So, no, not a clue.

"The Honorable Woman" doesn't give itself away easily - I was well into the eight episodes before a few things began to be clearer - but Blick uses his other characters so effectively that the wait doesn't seem wasted, even if you're just watching Rea, as an MI6 Mideast expert, interrogate a particularly ill-prepared liar.

And despite a politically charged storyline in which even the secrets have secrets, the story isn't as much about Nessa's work as it is about how she got where she is, and why.

There were moments when I was struck more by the economic divide between the Steins and the layers upon layers of people around them than by the gap between the Israelis and Palestinians. Money may not buy happiness, but it has allowed Nessa, whose traumas began at her very birth, with the death of her mother, to arrange a life where the unbearable can be borne, at least for a time.

Her long-overdue breakdown, though, is about to begin.


Email: graye@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5950

On Twitter: @elgray

Blog: ph.ly/EllenGray

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