Cara Winter: The Anglo Files 12: The Honourable Woman

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Nessa Stein in “The Honourable Woman”

by Cara Winter

 Full disclosure:  For whatever reason, on this particular day, I felt like watching something with Jake Gyllenhaal in it. But when I typed “Gyllenhaal” into my DVR’s search engine, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s work also came up, and at the top of the list was her latest Golden Globe-winning tour-de-force, The Honourable Woman.   Intrigued by this BBC co-production starring Gyllenhaal along side more than a few British heavy weights (like Stephen Rea, Eve Best, and Lindsay Duncan), I decided to give it a whirl.

Man.  I was *not* disappointed.  (Sorry, Jake… I’ll get around to seeing whatever you’re up to, another day.)

The Honourable Woman is a six-part miniseries, written and directed by Hugo Blick (and was a co-production with BBC and SundanceTV).  Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Nessa Stein, Baroness of Tillbury, an Anglo-Israeli businesswoman who has taken over the reigns of The Stein Group, the company her late father founded many years prior.  What unfolds is the gripping, complicated, and emotional story of Nessa and her family.  It begins with the death of Nessa’s father, when she and her brother were children; then, quickly, we are in the present day, and Nessa is announcing her earnest yet misguided attempt to bridge the gap between Israel and Palestine, with Stein Group’s plan to bring high-speed internet to the West Bank.   Then, while still basking in the glow of their hopeful promise… the child of the family’s nanny Atika (played by Lubna Azabal)is kidnapped, catapulting the entire family into panic and turmoil.

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Nessa is a force of nature; she doesn’t sit, stand, or raise an eyebrow without an emotional impetus. It’s hard to explain, in words… it’s as if Gyllenhaal swims in her emotional life.  Not a single line is wasted, or thrown-away — everything comes from the gut, with her, from the complex chemical concoctions of a woman in turmoil.  Each of her scenes feels dynamic, fresh, and painfully real, as though the actress is truly living Nessa’s nightmare.

Blick’s careful crafting of the story is brilliant– you never feel that you’re being manipulated, there are no gimmicks or gasp-inducing reveals; nor does anything happen too easily (my  primary complaint with typical TV mysteries or spy thrillers).  And everything is complicated, everything is emotional — even though the characters try, like hell, to simplify, and at all costs, hide their true feelings.

There is also a great deal of mystery surrounding these characters, and the phrase “Do you trust me?” is employed like an operatic motif.  Also wonderful is Nessa’s brother Ephra (played by Andrew Buchan), who’s storyline is an echo of stories that play out in the war-torn West Bank every single day…  for it is a particular kind of anguish to be completely powerless to protect those you love.   It reminds me of the play Via Dolorosa, by another Brit, David Hare — as both are profoundly personal examinations of the extremely political Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Regardless of the issue at hand (whether it’s the Stein Group’s plans, the kidnapping, or MI-6 looking into all of it), you are keenly aware that it is all happening, at once, with every breath each character takes.  Mid-way through the second episode, you’re begging Blick to give them a ray of hope — but it never comes.  Just as with Israel and Palestine, it seems all the rest of the world wants for them is a little rest, some peace; but for them, peace seems an impossible dream.

The Honourable Woman is on SundanceTV, and is also available streaming on Netflix.

Cara Winter is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about her HERE.


Author: Cara Winter

Born & raised in Kalamazoo, MI (yes, there really is a Kalamazoo). Living, writing & raising a son in Chicago, IL. BFA in Acting from New York University / Tisch School of the Arts. Professional stage actress for 20 years; member, Actor's Equity Association Writing for the stage since 2000.