The Honourable Woman, BBC2 - TV review: Maggie Gyllenhaal makes stilted spy thriller worth pursuing

New drama is mannered in a way that some viewers will find irritating

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The Independent Culture

Movie star Maggie Gyllenhaal is gracing us with her presence on British television. She stars in The Honourable Woman, an eight-part thriller about ethics and politics in the Middle East, which began on BBC2 last night. Unfortunately, Gyllenhaal’s presence alone is not enough to guarantee quality. She also signed on for Nanny McPhee 2, remember.

As it happens, Gyllenhaal is excellent as Baroness Nessa Stein, an Israeli-British CEO and philanthropist who aims to atone for the sins of her father by infusing the family arms business with a social conscience.

Gyllanhaal’s characteristic way of holding her body, a posture both elegant and apologetic, is peculiarly well suited to the role. It suggests a character whose motivations mingle family pride with intergenerational guilt. Not everyone approvesof the new direction, but as Baroness Stein told one irate former business partner: “It’s the Middle East, Shlomo, enemies is what you make.”

While Baroness Stein is making enemies, her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan) seems content to be a family man. In a piece of jarring casting, his wife, Rachel, is played by Katherine Parkinson from The IT Crowd. You kept expecting Moss to emerge from behind a PC monitor. Ephra’s retreat into his sister’s shadow might be a gallant act of sibling supportiveness. Or perhaps he’s deflecting attention away from a secret of his own?

Hoping to unravel all such secrets, meanwhile, are spooks Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea) and Monica Chatwin (Eve Best), both of whom dress with immaculate taste and speak in infuriating riddles. They would have been right at home in David Hare’s Worricker Trilogy, earlier this year.

David Hare didn’t write this one, however, and the real hallmark of a drama’s quality is not the cast list, but the writer’s credit. If you liked Hugo Blick’s 2011 conspiracy thriller The Shadow Line – and many did – there’s a good chance this follow-up will also be to your taste.

But like The Shadow Line, The Honourable Woman is mannered in a way that some viewers (myself included) will find irritating. Many scenes included heavy chunks of portentous dialogue, and that’s if you were lucky. If you weren’t lucky, there was no dialogue at all, just some mournful Middle Eastern voice, wailing away in the background.