Saturday, 5 July 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 5th July 2014.

The Honourable Woman: Thursday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

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. 


  1. Great review. Loved 'languid & lurid', a poetic flourish worthy of Clive James.

    I was very impressed with Shadow Line but patience is wearing out after four episodes of HW.

    Found the post-rape Mullah tribunal unbelievable, as was the 'Stone Factory' (?!) killing.

    There's too many characters, mostly unlikeable. Stephen Rea is marvellous once again.

    I couldn't abandon anything looking this good, with so many great actors but...

    Did you think this lived up to the promise of the opening episode?

    1. Crikey, thank you for the Clive James compliment. I'm not fit to even gaze at the hem of his garment.

      As for THW, I can certainly understand why it's testing your patience. Personally speaking, I tend to give Blick some leeway - within reason - when it comes to the more fanciful aspects of his work, as he's operating in a sort of heightened reality for the most part (I know you know this).

      THW is obviously more grounded in reality than TSL - if only on account of the political backdrop - but it still has traces of TSL's almost operatic excess. The killing at the stone factory - no, me neither - is a good case in point.

      It's a tricky balancing act, but I think Blick has pulled it off. Not that I'm suggesting he's a masturbatory dramatist.

      So yes, I do think it's lived up to its initial promise. I haven't seen the whole thing yet, but I'm still engrossed and impressed after five episodes.

      Anyway, I hope you enjoy the rest of the series, and thank you for your comment!

  2. sorry! Get too talkative during my rare 'up' phases.

    1. No need to apologise at all, I've only just got 'round to replying to your comment.

  3. Thanks for your reply. Maybe I should go back to watching the episodes twice. Work a little harder.

    Digging Ray Donavan currently, maybe I'm just a slob.

    'Operatic excess', yes! Mr Blick's speciality.