The Honorable Woman DVD Review: A Slow, Dense and Immensely Entertaining Thriller

A densely plotted drama that loses none of its depth while remaining thrilling to watch.
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Awhile back I made a pact with myself to not get involved in internet discussions of politics.  There were many reasons for this but the main one was that nobody’s mind is ever changed via Facebook.  A big part of the why this is comes from the lack of nuance one typically gets with an internet argument.  We speak in gifs and memes and argue in soundbites.  Big ideas, important topics, and certainly national politics are much too complicated to be settled in 140 characters.

This is true not only in our social media, but in our TV, radio, and print news sources.  It's true in our fiction and true in our movies and shows.  Nuance is perpetually lost in favor of easily digestible bites and nuggets.  We love our world in black and white, pretending that the perpetually gray world in which we live doesn’t exist.

The greatest art not only accepts the grays, but lives in them and thrives.  The BBC in conjunction with Sundance TV have created a show that is gone so far away from the black and the white you’d need a cosmic telescope in order to find them.  The Honorable Woman, an eight-part mini-series, which has just been released on DVD, tackles the murky relations between Israel and Palestine in a realistic manner, without skimming on depth, while still managing to be quite thrilling.

It's impossible to fully discuss the plot without giving away spoilers or writing a Russian-novel length treatise.  But the very basics involve Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an Anglo-Israeli whose father sold weapons to Israel and who was murdered before her (and her brother's) very eyes when they were children.  Nessa has now taken over her father’s business and has pushed it towards fostering peace between the two countries by running fiber optic cables from Israel into the West Bank and creating a higher education center there.

Things get murky quickly with intrigues upon intrigues, levels upon levels of espionage, flashbacks, and more twists and turns than anyone person without a penchant for charts and graphs can keep up with.  At the heart of the story are secrets.  There is a wonderful scene around the middle of the series where Ephra, the brother (a wonderful Andrew Buchan) discusses a secret he shares with another character.  He notes that he owns that secret but that this other character is owned by it.  What he means is that while this secret would damage him if it came out he could contain it and come out standing, while the other character would be completely destroyed.  This enables him to manage the secret and those few who know about it while she must do their bidding to keep it from being revealed.

That’s a pretty good summation of the themes of the story.  Everyone has secrets but only some are not ruled by them.  Everyone is, however, stained by them.   Nobody comes out clean.  Nessa tries to stand by her principles but everyone she deals with is dirty and it rubs off no matter how hard she fights it.

It is a deeply plotted and interwoven story.  There are so many angles, subplots, flashbacks, and revelations it's nearly impossible to keep up.  More than once I was confused as to what was happening, but never once did my eyes leave the screen.  It's a mesmerizing tale, thrilling and wonderfully told.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is excellent.  I’m a fan and this is by far her best work.  She completely inhabits the role of Nessa Stein.  Her voice, actions, body language, and even her very breath write great yards of her character. It is a brilliant, beautiful, delicate bit of acting.  The rest of the cast is marvelous, especially Stephen Rea as the outgoing head of MI6’s Middle East desk who steals every scene he’s in.

Israel and Palestine’s long, bloody history is a difficult and heavy subject to turn into entertaining television but The Honorable Woman does exactly that without losing any of the nuance or depth such an show truly needs.  It can be a bit indecipherable at times, but is well worth digging in to.

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