It’s the kind of free publicity you either dream of or have nightmares about: The premiere of an eight-part miniseries dealing with the ever-shifting terrain and loyalties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict debuted on the Sundance Channel on July 31 — vying for screen time with the most recent outbreak of war in Gaza, rocket attacks on Israel and anti-Semitic displays from around the world.
Hugo Blick, the writer/producer/director of The Honorable Woman says he wasn’t surprised by the conflation of real and fictional events. He says he was aware of the possibility of a third war in the area since 2009 when he was researching in Hebron 18 months ago. “You know that it’s never going away — it’s a cycle, although one could never expect the prescience of the timing.”
Steeped in espionage, dueling historical interpretations and constantly morphing relationships that firmly establishes Blick, a 49-year-old Briton, as a worthy successor to John Le Carré, the series compresses the enormity of decades of conflict into one woman’s family.
Nessa Stein — played with protean skill by Maggie Gyllenhal — an Israeli-born citizen of England who has just been appointed to the House of Lords, also runs the munitions company founded by her father. A devout Zionist, he supplied arms to Israel until he was murdered in front of a young Nessa and her brother, Ephra. As she tries to realize her dream of providing high-speed data access to both Israel and the Palestinian territories, her past begins to catch up with her in a slow-burning conflagration that attracts MI-6, the CIA and the Palestinian terrorists who captured her and her Palestinian friend/translator, Atika, eight years ago.
The premise of The Honorable Woman is so au courant that it prominently features many of the same players and locales that have been splayed across front pages and home pages reporting on the current war. But the genesis of Blick’s vision first manifested itself more than three decades ago, with the attempted assassination of Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Shlomo Argov, an incident that left Argov permanently paralyzed and that led directly to the first Lebanon War in 1982.
Blick says the impact of that horrific event has stayed with him since he first found out about it as a child. “I was in the area as a boy, and I remember it — I was very aware at that time of the PLO activity” — Argov was targeted by followers of Abu Nidal, who had rejected the PLO by that point as not being sufficiently proactive in anti-Israel terrorism.
The 1982 attack left Blick with a lifelong fascination in how the personal and the geopolitical can be inexorably linked. A note of incredulity can be heard in his voice as he talks about how the assassination attempt, which took place in front of London’s Dorchester Hotel, reverberated around the world.
“Acts of violence, when you’re close to them, and they’re not anticipated, they can have a strong influence — look at how a couple of meters of a London sidewalk became part of an intractable conflict.”
Although he wasn’t raised Jewish, Blick has a Jewish father, which, he says, deepened his interest in Israeli affairs. “I should say I have a greater interest and affirmation” in what happens to Israel, “and how difficult it is for Israel to be surrounded by combatants on its border, but I recognize the pressing need of the other side as well.” That need to acknowledge the needs of both Israelis and Palestinians asserts itself in an evenhanded way throughout the series.
Blick’s belief in the interconnected nature of an event’s impact on both micro and macro levels provides the thematic structure of The Honorable Woman, and the luxury of filming what amounts to an eight-hour movie allows him to explore the psychological and emotional effects of those who have been exposed to violence both physical and intangible, real and implied.
The resultant pacing may take some getting used to for viewers used to resolutions presented within a traditional film’s two-hour running time, and produces an immersive experience along the lines of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, two other long-form shows that didn’t shy away from mixing introspective moments with plot-necessitated violence.
“The meditative, contemplative pace of this gives it a unique voice,” Blick says, citing the influence of filmmakers like Jon Boorman and Carol Reed, whose films like Point Blank and Odd Man Out, respectively, are paragons of the deliberately paced psychological action thriller.
One way that Blick has differentiated The Honorable Woman from both his predecessors and, indeed, from the vast majority of films and television being made today, is by having virtually all of the lead roles go to the women of his international cast, including Janet McTeer as the head of MI-6, Lubna Azabal as Atika and Katherine Parkinson as Nessa’s sister-in-law. Blick says that having his story revolve around women “was conscious to a degree.” He wondered, “What would happen if I put women into the story and made them protagonists? How would we explore their psychology in the genre?”
Social experiments aside, The Honorable Woman is a prime example of how good television can be in the right hands. Smart, taut storylines that delve into the politics and the history of the conflict at the same time they unravel individual lives, it is a wholly believable, fully realized world that offers nuances and observations about the ongoing Israel-Palestinian struggle.
So how did Blick, who is best known to American audiences as the actor who portrayed a young Jack Napier before he became the Joker in the 1989 version of Batman — where he uttered the famous non-sequitur, “Did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” — get the go-ahead to create a program that would require a commitment from viewers to watch eight hours of sometimes-bloody, sometimes-expository Middle East-centric storylines with a female-heavy cast?
To hear the publicity-shy Blick (he sounds delighted when told that the most detailed personal information readily available about him begins and ends with his birth year) tell it, it’s all because no one else wanted to do Marion and Geoff, a drama about a cabbie that ran from 2000 to 2003.
“No one would fund it, so I did it myself,” he says, taking the reins out of sheer desperation and necessity.
Marion and Geoff wound up winning numerous awards in Britain and led to numerous other television projects for Blick, most notably the 2011 series, The Shadow Line, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Christopher Eccleston.
The Honorable Woman is being shown simultaneously in the United Kingdom and the United States, thanks to the distribution partnership between the BBC and Sundance Channel. Surprisingly, though, Blick says there are no plans at present to show it in Israel. He affirms that it will happen “at the right moment,” especially since the series has received such a positive response from both critics and viewers.
“People have engaged in the dexterity of the exploration of the story,” he says. “I hope it does have some place in the region’s understanding of itself. Some small place.”
The Honorable Woman
Thursdays at 10 p.m. through Sept. 18
For additional show times, go to sundance.tv
For past episodes, check your provider’s on-demand services or go to bbc.co.uk/iplayer.