With his debut, The Shadow Line in 2011, Hugo Blick created one of the great British TV dramas, a genuine thriller with conspiracy at its heart and an uncompromising sinister force that created suspense throughout. Blick’s follow up, The Honourable Woman, was four years in the making and daring enough to be centred around the Gaza, a complex enough centrepiece for an eight-hour documentary to effectively deal with, much less a drama with over half-a-dozen significant characters.
As timing had it, the early, sometimes slow-paced, episodes were in danger of being over-shadowed by the shocking real-life events on the news bulletins that followed its airing with hospitals, schools, playgrounds and UN shelters being regularly bombed in a one-sided national assault on Palestine. But the premise of The Honourable Woman was a central character, Nessa Stein (played by Maggie Gyllenhall) independently striving for peace amidst constant examples of brutal collateral damage, not least to herself.
Balancing the storyline of Stein, with chapters that included several flashbacks as the story unfolded, while maintaining a thriller, The Honourable Woman had a different pace to The Shadow Line, with much more incidental music and even montages that varied from using Radiohead’s brilliant How To Disappear Completely to real-life footage of armed soldiers marching into battle. But it was still full of impact, most notably in a cracking penultimate episode before ends were tied up surprisingly neatly by the climax.
Blick showed his cinematic influences from the start, with an aerial shot of a chase in the first episode that had more than a touch of North by Northwest about it. There were more elements of Hitchcock with attempts to build tension which included showing a ticking bomb, while there was a nod to The Godfather when the character who spoke like Martin Jol, Shlomo Zahary, playfully chasied his grandchildren around the garden. Violence was a constant factor, but the hits in a thriller where death was always round the corner, were usually carried out in style, with a pace we became accustomed to, Sopranos-like, and even allowed Blick to throw in the odd red herring.
With the increasing acceptance that TV can now be a greater medium than cinema, Blick had no trouble in assembling a wonderful cast, with Maggie Gyllenhall, who reverses the trend of British actors starring in American dramas, an excellent lead, with a calm drawl and a perfect fit in the panic room we often see her character retreat too. Stephen Rea and Eve Best clash again after The Shadow Line, Janet McTeer and Lubna Azabal each take turns in stealing the show and there is a place too for Lindsey Duncan, who was in one of the great British TV political conspiracies, GBH.
There was though more than one-occasion when the credibility of a particular scene was stretched, not least when Stein’s phone rang as she publicly announced a tender result, without even the complication of when the procurement standstill period was; and more critically, when a supposed brighter character seems to be heading to their demise with all the lack of instinct of a soon to be victim in a teen horror movie, the line from Hank from Breaking Bad about the smartest guy being too stupid to see the obvious comes to mind.
But ultimately The Honourable Woman is about the bigger picture rather than the finer details, with Nessa Stein’s desire to achieve peace through eradicating poverty and increasing education and communication, although the viewer can see throughout she is just a pawn in a game controlled by much greater forces, who pay little value to human life.
Blick isn’t judgemental of the greater situation, but the best line of the whole series comes in an aside from Janet McTeer’s excellent Julia Walsh, with a cutting response when given permission to use Israeli airspace over Palestinian land.
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