TV Review: ‘The Honorable Woman’ is another SundanceTV winner

Mike Leigh's 1996 drama “Secrets & Lies” is a very good movie, at times even a great movie. It's full of great performances, rich thematic underpinnings and, like so many Mike Leigh films, fine naturalistic dialogue.

But then it also has that scene where Timothy Spall's Maurice wails, “Secrets and lies! We're all in pain! Why can't we share our pain? I've spent my entire life trying to make people happy, and the three people I love the most in the world hate each other's guts, and I'm in the middle! I can't take it anymore!”

I've never quite been sure what Mike Leigh wanted that speech to accomplish. 

Did he really think, “Without this, nobody will know why we called this movie 'Secrets & Lies' and audiences will leave disgruntled”? 

Did he think, “Yes, viewers will probably get what the movie is about, but there's no harm in underlining it just a little”?

Or did he just figure that speech was the key to Spall getting an Oscar nomination and he left it in because we all know Mike Leigh is deeply invested in award recognition for his movies?

I tend to suspect option “B,” because nobody ever placed the requirement of “subtlety” on great art. Sometimes artists like to make sure they're understood, even if a largely inert sponge probably would have gotten the point anyway.

Hugo Blick's eight-part miniseries “The Honorable Woman” — I really, really want to call it “The Honourable Woman,” but once you open the door to British spelling, that door can never be closed — is a nuanced and occasionally gripping political thriller bursting with strong performances, anchored by the clearly Emmy-worthy Maggie Gyllenhaal. It's also really, really worried that you won't understand what's happening beneath-the-surface and I'm not sure that I've ever seen a movie or TV program spend so much time directly articulating and then repeating its underlying themes. 

It's an odd combination, because while writer-director-producer Blick has almost no faith in the audience's ability to parse this text for its message on truth, lies, secrets and the Middle East, he's reasonably confident that viewers will be able to follow a fragmented narrative that withholds key pieces of information for long stretches. So “The Honorable Woman” is probably the most subtle and least subtle thing you're likely to watch on TV this month, which actually makes it of a piece with a lot of SundanceTV's original programming, which could practically have the tagline, “Pay Close Attention: We're Only Going To Tell You This 50 Times.” [SundanceTV placed two shows in my Top 10 for 2013, so don't take this necessarily as a damning criticism. I like things that are both obtuse and willing to beat you over the head with a mallet.]

More on “The Honorable Woman” after the break…

“We all have secrets. We all tell lies just to keep them from each other and from ourselves,” says Gyllenhaal's Nessa Stein, newly peered Baroness Stein of Tilbury, the Anglo-Israeli head of The Stein Group, in the voiceover that begins every single “Honorable Woman” episode, just in case you've forgotten between airings.

“It's a wonder we trust anyone at all,” the repeated voiceover concludes.

If that were the only time the theme of “The Honorable Woman” were directly addressed, you could probably trace the throughline, but my notes for the first six episodes (I just didn't have time to finish, but I'm looking forward to it) include no fewer than 12 quotes about secrets and those are just the ones I wrote down. 

Another good one comes from Andrew Buchan's Ephra Stein, Nessa's seemingly less business-oriented brother.

“Secrets are weird,” Ephra explains. “People think you share them, but you don't. They have two sides: Either you own them or they own you.”

Secrets and lies!

Trying to explain the plot of “The Honorable Woman” would probably confuse you and it definitely wouldn't improve the unfolding experience.

The series begins with a flashback to Nessa and Ephra witnessing the violent murder of their father, a powerful figure in the Israeli munitions business. 

A generation later, the Stein Group has shifted from arms to communications and Nessa is announcement a project to build a broadband Internet network across the West Bank. She's about to invite controversy from within and without by hiring a Palestinian contractor to lay the wire, but bad things are about to happen, bad things that are going to attract the attentions of MI6, American intelligence agencies and Israeli military forces. 

And everything happening in the present relates to both The Very Bad Thing that happened to Nessa's father and to A Very Bad Thing that happened to Nessa eight years earlier.

“The Honorable Woman” is about the intersection of personal, professional and political secrets and everything in the narrative is about whether family ties, financial ties or national ties are more powerful and what it takes to break down those ties. That, of course, means that in almost every conversation, one or two characters know things that would make life easier or more comprehensible for other characters, but nobody says the things they know, because otherwise this is a story that could be wrapped up in a neat package in an hour, rather than eight.

In one key scene in the fifth episode, an investigator is laying out information for a client and the client, impatient, demands a piece of information that the investigator is actually being paid to provide and even in that client-vendor relationship, she's put off.

“Wait, please. This is a story with an order,” the investigator explains.

That's Blick's approach to “Honorable Woman” storytelling as well. The narratives jump around in time and place and sometimes viewers are helpfully informed when and where the actions are taking place, but other times you're just expected to look at the character relationships and guess. 

Herein lies the impossible-to-underestimate advantage of the sort of pure auteurist TV that's basically unprecedented in the States and is still very uncommon in the UK. You might hate Blick's heavy-handed approach to theme and his oblique approach to storytelling, but if the blossoming of this story appeals to you, there is a cohesiveness of voice and visual expression that carries through the full series. And Blick's aesthetic choices mirror his approach to scripting, so that just when you worry that a scene is unfolding in a way that's too languid or too invested in seemingly haphazard framing, Blick catches an exchange of glances or an emotional performance beat that let you know that there was always a purpose. And then if you still didn't get the purpose, somebody will say something about secrets and you'll be back on the same page with “Honorable Woman.”

I'm sure I'm using a lot of words here that are filling you with trepidation, because “languid” and “oblique” and “heavy-handed” are generally pejoratives. 

So let me step back: “The Honorable Woman” is really a thriller and, at its best, it's on a level with something like “Homeland” at its best. There are kidnappings, spycraft, dead-drop meetings and, as I may have mentioned, shocking reveals of myriad secrets. There are also assassinations aplenty, though “The Honorable Woman” over-relies on a favorite “Homeland” and “24” trope, killing off characters just as they're about to give up their secrets as a means to elongate the narrative.

Like Claire Danes' Carrie, Gyllenhaal's Nessa is prone to doing stupid and ill-considered things, but the character is written with enough complexity that you understand her motivations, or at least you understand them as well as you can based on the information provided at any given moment. Gyllenhaal makes Nessa strong, smart and vulnerable and, as with Danes' Carrie, she's able to cry with great ease. Throw in Gyllenhaal's flawless British accent and you have a performance that will be in the conversation with whatever whatever year-end awards contenders FX (“American Horror Story: Freak Show” and whatnot) and HBO (Frances McDormand for “Olive Kitteridge” and whatnot) are likely to have. Gyllenhaal hasn't gotten many chances to have roles this meaty and this is a reminder that even for actors as discerning as Gyllenhaal usually is, there's just so much more opportunity on TV these days than even the rich indie film sphere.

[It's here I have to quickly touch on The Potential “Tyrant” Hypocrisy: Gyllenhaal's character is Israeli, but it's explained that her father fled Europe and the Holocaust, while her mother also looks to be European in pictures. In the opening flashback, though, Nessa is played by a young actress with much darker skin. At TCA press tour, Blick explained that the young actress went on vacation and came back with a tan that they tried to cover with makeup, with limited success. The casting disparity led to various conspiracy theories among UK viewers, but Blick denied it was a plot-driven choice. If I could have watched those last two episodes I'd know for sure. Bottom line: I had initial discomfort, but after seeing the first episode unfold, I wasn't bothered anymore.]

I thought “Broadchurch” veteran Buchan was a little wooden at first, but he gets better, as do co-stars Lubna Azabal and Katherine Parkinson on the “family” side of the story.

The espionage side of things has Stephen Rea at his hangdog best, as an agent who has probably been justifiably overlooked and underestimated, but sees the Stein situation as his chance to prove himself and get something right before retirement. Janet McTeer also has great moments, effectively playing M from the James Bond franchise. 

Straddling the various worlds are the fantastic Yigal Naor as an Israeli business man with deceptive sources of intelligence and Tobias Menzies as a bodyguard with murky loyalties.

“The Honorable Woman” also has an extra dash of finger-on-the-pulse currency with the situation in Israel, though the sad reality is that almost any time this premiered, it would have been current. Blick's approach to the Middle East is smarter and more involved than the broad-strokes attempted on “Homeland” and on other American shows in recent years and there's an effort to give a nuanced and pragmatic read on the crisis, which probably means that people on both sides will be irked at being portrayed as compromised occasionally self-interested. There are ideals here, but it's very hard for anybody to live up to their better selves. As with everything else in “Honorable Woman,” the knotty entanglements of Middle Eastern policy are talked about in declarative sentences, just in case you don't get it.

Guess what? You'll probably get it.

Probably you'll get most of the things that Hugo Blick is underlining for you.

But it really is a mixture of aspiration and hand-holding that drive “The Honorable Woman.” It wants to yield a difficult yarn and it does, but it also wants to make sure you don't fall behind so that when you're guessing, you're puzzled by the things Blick wants you guessing, not by broader things.

Secrets and lies, OK?

[Reminder: This review is based on six of eight episodes in what is a close-ended miniseries. It could stick the landing or it could fall on its face. We'll see!]

“The Honorable Woman” premieres on Thursday, July 31 at 10 p.m. on SundanceTV.