“The Honorable Woman” on TV: an Earnest but Convoluted Look at the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

“The Honorable Woman” on TV: an Earnest but Convoluted Look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

With passions about the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict running at an all time high, the BBC/Sundance channel series “The Honorable Woman” available on DVD is a compelling addition to our televised programming. The British mini-series directed and produced by Hugo Blick gives the spotlight to the issue, rather than using it as a backdrop as in series such as “Homeland” or “24”. It is a shrewd and sagacious thriller where one feels more clever at the end, although not for its wise grasp of the political context.

The story starts with a flashback: the murder by a Palestinian terrorist of Eli Stein, an Anglo-Israeli arms manufacturer who provided weapons and bombs to Israel in the first years of the State. The crime perpetrated in revenge for the Palestinian lives he helped kill is witnessed by his young children Ephra and Nessa, who will be scarred for life, less for watching the gruesome murder of their own father though, than because they feel guilty for what their father embodied. This is not the Oresteia: Blood will not be paid for blood. Instead, Ephra and Nessa lay down the grounds for the elimination of one of the most visceral conflicts of our times.   They build the Stein Foundation, whose liberal goal is to give equal opportunity to Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East region and foster reconciliation. So far, so good.

But when the Palestinian who has just been awarded a major telecommunications contract by the Stein Foundation is found hanging dead in his hotel room, all hell breaks loose. Who killed him? Is it the Israelis? The Americans? M16 starts investigating and the delightfully named Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea)-a witty and high-class inspector Columbo-type leads the way, as Nessa Stein who heads the Foundation finds herself in the midst of a vast and intricate espionage scheme. But the sub-plots (the rivalry between M16 and the CIA) and personal traumas of the characters mixed with frequent flashbacks are often so complex they threaten to obscure the political stakes Blick strives to lay out with mixed discernment.

Newly anointed Baroness for her philanthropic work, Nessa Stein is played with a mix of coolness and vulnerability well suited to her off-screen persona by the American actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. She has been praised for her perfect rendition of an upperclass British accent, but I found it a bit contrived. Nevertheless, the affectation ironically befits the stiffness of Baroness Stein. She is the honorable woman, almost too earnest, and I hope Mr. Blick intended some irony in the epithet (but I doubt it). For Nessa Stein has baggage, her personal traumas often obscuring and muddying her political inclinations.

For instance, her relationship with her brother Ephra is quasi-incestuous, while carrying the seeds of a fierce Biblical strife. They are an Abel and Cain pair, and while Ephra (Andrew Buchan) used to head the Foundation eight years ago in somewhat pragmatic fashion, Nessa usurps the title replacing his line with a stauncher idealism that favors the Palestinians. When Israeli businessman and long-time friend of the Stein family Shlomo Zahary-an obvious father figure- hopes to get the telecommunications contract that is once more up for grabs, Nessa holds it back from him because she thinks he has been compromised with terrorists (and perhaps because he is Israeli?). She has to prove her authority, metaphorically killing the father once more.

There are hints and withheld information about a traumatic event which happened to Nessa eight years ago while in captivity in Gaza after being kidnapped by a faction of the PLO. But her ordeal (I wont disclose what it is, although you could guess) which no woman, let alone a feminist in the West would accept with resignation, spurs masochistic feelings in her. She seems to suffer from acute Stockholm syndrome, and I could not help feeling disturbed by her submissiveness. Is it poise or folly that makes her so eagerly defend her executioners?

When at the end of the series, the Palestinian terrorist who admits to having ordered her father’s murder and other tragedies that befell on her confronts her, her answer is shockingly meek: “I deserved it.” One would hope for a little more combativeness in the matter.

The series is often an exercise in Western guilt about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with fairness in the treatment of the conflict mostly obliterated in favor of exclusive Palestinian grievances. It does not help that Israeli characters are portrayed as caricatures (they are steam-rollers and threateningly ubiquitous, or else extremists) while Palestinian terrorists are given noble motives.

Lubna Azabal is a revelation as Atika Halibi, the Palestinian nanny of Ephra and Rachel Stein’s children. The Belgian actress of Moroccan and Spanish descent has a raw beauty that captures beautifully the Palestinian plight: she still keeps a piece of shrapnel from the Israeli bomb that killed her family as a child. She is also superb as a third piece of the erotic triangle between Nessa and Ephra, while Jewish Rachel-Ephra’s wife- is fastidious as a stereotypical British JAP.

And there is no one on the other end of the argument to represent the Israeli claim to the land, or what Israel means for Jews, so it makes up for a one-sided picture. If the series is commendable for tackling an inextricable issue, it is also solipsistic for it fails to place the conflict in historical perspective. While putting up a facade of political sophistication, it actually misses its goal, confusing the personal traumas of the main character with a much wider and more complex conflict that ends up oversimplified, to the point of dangerously obscuring the issue. In the end, this is about Nessa Stein’s Way of the Cross, which is a bit strange for a Jewish character.

There is a fashionable varnish to the series certainly adding to the overall appeal: Ms. Gyllenhaal’s chic wardrobe of Roland Mouret, Stella McCartney and Burberry pieces, leaves all of us women drooling. I also loved Julia Walsh (Janet McTeer), Hayden-Hoyles’ boss- for her no-nonsense feminism. Here is what she says after meeting with her American counterparts at the CIA: “In a room full of pussies, I am the only one with a vagina.” There is a refreshing honesty in her character, unlike Nessa Stein’s bizarre fascination with the other side.

With its oriental notes, the music acts as an ominous lament much as the chorus does in Greek tragedy. It is also an attempt to add a cool edginess to the overall atmosphere, but it is pompous. As Edward Said would have said, it is a fantasy of Orientalism. Consider it a metaphor for the series itself.

“The Honorable Woman”:

Produced by Eight Rooks and Drama Republic for BBC Two and Sundance TV. Written and directed by Hugo Blick; Greg Brenman, executive producer; Mr. Blick and Abi Bach, producers.

WITH: Maggie Gyllenhaal (Nessa Stein), Andrew Buchan (Ephra Stein), Stephen Rea (Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle), Igal Naor (Shlomo Zahary), Lubna Azabal (Atika Halabi), Tobias Menzies (Nathaniel Bloom), Eve Best (Monica Chatwin), Katherine Parkinson (Rachel Stein) and Janet McTeer (Dame Julia Walsh).

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