The World Cup is still bouncing on, Wimbledon’s at full swing, music festivals are eating up the weekends, and the sun is shining. Traditionally, in summer weeks like this, television networks do not launch big new dramas. Or, if they do, it’s because someone somewhere has watched the thing, reckoned that it’s a bit of a dog, and decided to try and slip it out while no one is looking.
Certainly, the scheduling of The Honourable Woman smacks of the BBC hedging its bets, and I can understand why. From what I’ve seen, this eight-part serial is, by an enormous distance, the best drama British television has produced this year, if not in several years. That sort of thing makes people nervous.
Adding to the angst is that it is by writer-director-producer Hugo Blick who, as previously demonstrated by 2011’s brilliant and demented Shadow Line, has taken the decision not to follow the path that has led to the situation where 85 per cent of our TV fictions today run together in the same grey blur of porridgey “realism,” to the extent you could edit together sequences from social-message dramas, sci-fi shows and sitcoms without noticing they came from different programmes.
The Honourable Woman isn’t quite as heavily and mischievously stylised as The Shadow Line, but all the elements that made that series stand out – and turned some viewers off – remain. It is rooted in real, pressing concerns: the mystery centres on Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a Briton of Israeli extraction, who, as head of an enormously wealthy family-run business and charitable foundation, and a newly-elected member of the House Of Lords, is a major player in the Middle East peace process. Around her conspire secrets, shades, hidden agendas and buried histories, involving her, her family, its fortune and the black, geopolitical, realpolitik jousting of intelligence services. She sleeps alone in a panic room.
Blick assembles his themes seriously, but goes at them as a man whose vision is filtered through, haunted by and seeking communion with TV and films that have moved him in the past. The BBC’s Edge Of Darkness and John Le Carré adaptations of the late-1970s and early-80s are major touchstones. Dialogue can have the blunt, pausing patter of Pinter. The landscapes sometimes fall as beautifully, artificially and carefully empty as the bright streets John Steed and Emma Peel hunted through in The Avengers. In frantic chases by night, shadows loom and flit like they once did through The Third Man.
Beneath, trickles a thin current of odd, dark humour. Much involves Stephen Rea as Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle, an MI6 spook about to be forced from his job, but digging in his heels to investigate the murder of a Palestinian businessman with connections to Stein. Blick gave Rea the role of a lifetime as The Shadow Line’s indestructible Gatehouse, and he’s done it again here. Louche yet prissy, dissipated but steely, Rea’s Hayden-Hoyle suggests a weird combination of George Smiley and Bill Wyman. Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, has Joan of Arc hair, a face like a mask, and a voice like sleep.
There are action setpieces and cliffhangers. Between comes space, light and stillness; moments that have the slow, glassy clarity of a dream. False leads, red herrings and paranoia abound. The recurring motifs are doors and curtains, things hidden, partially glimpsed. A voice asks: “Are you lost?” Tension pulls tight. It’s like doing a jigsaw without the picture, using pieces that come individually through the mail in unmarked envelopes. It is very, very good.
Published in The Sunday Herald, June 29 2014