Talk about good timing.
No one had any clue there would be a major Israeli-Palestinian conflagration when “An Honorable Woman,” the new BBC miniseries focusing on Middle East players, started filming in London and Morocco last year. They had no idea that the eight-episode, cloak-and-dagger thriller would air on the Sundance Channel in the midst of what is now the world’s most headlined event.
Never has a drama seemed so prescient, so relevant, as “An Honourable Woman,” which focuses on newly ennobled British Baroness Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who has turned her Israeli father’s weapons-supply company into a peace-making business.
“Who do you trust? How do you know, by how they appear, by what they say, what they do?” Nessa says in the opening monologue of the show, in which she, as a little girl, and her brother Ephra see a terrorist murder their father.
“Eli Stein believed that no home could thrive unless it was surrounded by strong walls,” Nessa notes, 29 years later, explaining the reason her father was an arms manufacturer. But she and her brother believe the greatest threat to Israel is Palestinian poverty. “Instead of laying mines, we will lay cables,” she tells the group of Arabs, Israelis and others bidding for a tender to build infrastructure for telephone, Internet and cable in the West Bank.
The tender is awarded to a Palestinian. But he is a no-show. He has been murdered, and thus begins the mystery. Was it the Israelis (“I tell you he wins that contract and I get my hands on his neck, f**k the Six-Day War, it will be over in seconds”)? Or the Palestinians (warning, “You cannot choose an Israeli, not after this.”)? Throw into the mix the bumbling British bobbies, the MI5, the FBI, love triangles, political maneuvering and kidnappings and you have a regular whodunit (and why?).
If this sounds like a fast-paced “Homeland” or “Scandal” remind yourself: It’s British. Classy. Understated. There are no fast-cuts with clicking cameras; no raging, mentally ill female characters. Instead, an ominous soundtrack accompanies slowly unfolding scenes – whether it’s the waiter preparing to kill Eli Stein with the bread tongs (splashing blood on young Nessa’s impassive face), or Ephra’s suspenseful examination of present-day waiters, and resulting fake blood splattered by a Jewish protester shouting: “Israel belongs to the Jews! The Shomron belongs to the Jews!”
No, neither side comes off particularly well in “Honorable” (except maybe the restrained Brits, like Nessa). But that may be the intention of writer/director/producer Hugo Blick, who said he has had a “lifelong” interest in the region.
“It is a cauldron of human identity, and it’s this turbulence, reflected in the character of Nessa Stein, that I wanted to explore. To a backdrop of the seemingly irreconcilable this is a story about personal reconciliation. It was very interesting to take a world issue, distill it into a single family and then to explore how this tested them,” he said in an interview in Cannes in April.
“My political sympathies and/or ideologies are not relevant to the story which stands on its own particular platform. ‘The Honorable Woman’ is a work of fiction and yes, it does look at real and current politics in the Middle East, but, I am certainly not offering any actual, specific answers to such a complex and emotionally provocative issue except to explore what happens to fictional characters who do.”
Of course, Blick had no idea when he wrote – or filmed – the series as to how the world might now be dealing with and seeking answers to problems in the Middle East. Perhaps that’s why it actually might be bad timing for the series to air right now, as thousands are dying in the Gaza Strip, and Israel and Hamas are entrenched in hard-line positions.
In this actual bellicose climate, the fictional Steins’ plan to create peace through prosperity may seem misguided, naive, or, depending on your politics, even dangerous. Yet it such a vision may be more necessary than ever now, the lead actress said.
“I created a character that I hoped would speak to both sides,” Gyllenhaal told Jon Stewart last Wednesday. “Now maybe that’s a fantasy, but I do think it’s a fantasy that’s worth having, that’s worth exploring, that’s worth considering, especially now at this moment where it feels impossible, where it’s really scary to talk about it, especially in this country.”
The actress added that art could be one way in: “Not that’s it’s going to solve anything, but if you can shift someone a little tiny bit, if it’s too scary to have a conversation with so many people because people get so angry and stop listening – maybe, maybe something like this can make you feel about it in a way that makes you think.”