This article was originally published in The Courier on 5th July 2014.
The Honourable Woman: Thursday, BBC Two
Like a hand grenade exploding in a duck pond,The Shadow Line made a huge impact when it aired on BBC Two in 2011. While it never had a chance of becoming a mainstream hit – too violent, too off-kilter – this striking fusion of John Le Carre noir and Dennis Potter madness is rightly regarded as a modern cult classic.
Fans have waited three years to see what writer/director/producer Hugo Blick would come up with next. The answer is The Honourable Woman, a riveting political thriller set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like The Shadow Line, it plants one foot firmly in the real world while existing in a heightened, disquieting reality. Both languid and lurid, this twisted aesthetic is Blick's distinctive calling card.
It's easy to see why American actress Maggie Gyllenhaal – sporting a convincing English accent - was attracted to this ambitious project. Her character, Nessa Stein, is an intricate gift. A powerful Anglo-Israeli businesswoman, Nessa has the surface appearance of a poised, charming, ethical idealist. But as made clear by her opening monologue, which unfolded over a brutal childhood flashback to her father's assassination, nothing is as it seems in this world.
Having inherited the family weapons business, she announced plans to drastically invert its modus operandi. Instead of procuring arms, it would now focus on laying broadband cables between Israel and the West Bank. By literally linking them together, she hoped to bring these bitter enemies one step closer to peace. Factor in her recent appointment to the House of Lords, and this decision naturally caused an explosive outbreak of controversy.
She'd offered the multimillion contract to a Palestinian businessman who, in an ostentatious flourish typical of Blick, was promptly assassinated with a lasso-loaded crossbow. Found hanged from a pole bearing Palestine's flag, the authorities were quick to deduce symbolic suicide. Anyone rolling their eyes at this unlikely turn of events should probably tune out now: dark, theatrical absurdity is at the heart of Blick's unique vision.
His penchant for droll black comedy is embodied by the character of Sir Hugh, a world-weary spy on the verge of retirement played by the impeccable Stephen Rea. Having worked with Blick on The Shadow Line, where he played a truly nightmarish villain, Rea is perfectly in tune with his acerbic dialogue. Resembling a crumpled mole sucking on a lozenge, he subtly steals his every scene.
Sir Hugh's lonely existence is mirrored by Nessa's private anguish: two powerful people with gnawing emptiness at their core. Traumatised after being kidnapped in Gaza alongside her brother's Palestinian nanny, Nessa now sleeps – when she can – in a cell-like antechamber hidden behind a bookcase. Thank you, Hugo Blick, for allowing me to write such an outlandish sentence.
A master of suspense, he closed this hugely promising opener with an elegantly-handled set-piece involving an ambushed theatre, a kidnapped child, a dramatic foot-chase, and an unexpected shooting. I can easily imagine him grinning as he wrote it.
Despite its weighty themes – it remains to be seen whether Blick has anything meaningful to say about the Middle East - The Honourable Woman is fundamentally a breathtaking thriller riddled with shocks and twists. Provocative entertainment for mature adults, how about that for a mind-blowing concept?
In a year full of unexpectedly impressive BBC dramas, the likes of Line of Duty and Happy Valley have a bold new contender.