There Will Be Spoilers
With Netflix, NowTV and Amazon Prime Instant Video all vying for my attention (not to mention unfinished DVD boxsets haunting my shelves), it’s not too often I’ll take a chance on a new British drama mini-series, having given so many recent critically-acclaimed and award-winning offerings a miss in favour of catching up on Stateside big-hitters. But with the likeable Maggie Gyllenhaal as its lead and an accidentally topical premise, I felt like Hugo Blick’s The Honourable Woman would be worth my while. Sadly, having tortuously sat through the entire series, I am left baffled by its positive write-ups.
Now I don’t claim to be an expert on Gaza conflict so in terms of accuracy or sensitivity to the issues at hand, I can’t rightly say whether The Honourable Woman did it justice. The montage of historical newsreel footage in the final episode did however strike me as feeling a tad misjudged, a last grab at legitimising the story with some tangential context. So too has The Honourable Woman been commended for not taking sides the Israel/Palestine debate, but isn’t that the bare minimum any drama should achieve? As if it’s something daring and imaginative to say “Oh wow, it’s not so black and white – there are good people and bad people on both sides! And good people can do bad things and bad people can do good things!” (in any case, we all know Curb Your Enthusiasm’s ‘Palestinian Chicken’ episode is the definitive word on the subject). But viewed simply as a piece of Original British Drama, I found it deficient in almost every area.
There’s nothing wrong about dumb shows. Or important shows. But dumb shows masquerading as something important rub me the wrong way. Like Homeland before it, The Honourable Woman is like a mediocre summer holiday thriller, the kind you find advertised on the Tube (you know, with titles like “The Shadow Code” – the new Agent Jack Walker novel), but the dust jacket has been removed so its stark hardback exterior suggests sophistication. A prestige production on the surface but failing to deliver in practice, confusing convolution for complexity, it’s like everyone is playing dress-up with the “gripping international thriller” box, but none of the clothes fit properly.
Maybe I’d be more forgiving if it was set in America or everyone spoke Danish, but nothing rings true about the performances or dialogue. In Nessa Stein, Gyllenhaal’s performance goes all-out and she wears her emotions on her sleeve, but it means we’re left with someone who 90% of the time is either delivering a speech or incessantly sobbing. Bad stuff has happened to her, bad stuff continues to happen to her (to an almost ludicrous extent), but her self-destructive personality, coupled with her plush surroundings, make her a hard person with whom to really empathise. Indeed, the same can be said about practically all the principals that surround her, so come the big reveals and tragic gut punches, they felt hollow.
That’s the thing when you deploy too many twists, you stop caring about any narrative thread, expecting it to be flipped on its head an episode or two down the line, so why bother becoming invested in the story in the present. If you see someone holding onto the rug on which you are standing, it comes as no surprise when they pull it out from under you, even if you may not know precisely when or the nature of how it is going to happen. The BIG secret teased throughout the opening episodes was sadly obviously going to involve rape. How can I say this sensitively, but does it say more about society these days or the general laziness in storytelling that it would be genuinely shocking if a female character had a secret in her past that did not involve sexual abuse? Of course, it was necessary to the story and it was handled properly, and yes, it had ramifications beyond the act itself, but it meant the first half of the series was keeping its cards so close to its chest, the payoff lacked the power it was clearly gunning for.
It was notable that in a typically male-dominated genre, there were a lot of women with agency in key roles, but few came out unscathed. I refuse to believe the woeful accent from Samir’s mistress in episode 2 was genuinely that of an American (even if according to the Internet she is), similarly the dodgy taxi driver, and the script frequently mistook cringe-inducing one-liners as bold characterisation (the last episode particularly bad with its “Hugh…view” and “pussies” quips). And sadly, for all Katherine Parkinson’s efforts in a difficult part, her sad voice and angry shouty voice are no different from those of Jen in The I.T. Crowd, and I just couldn’t take her seriously. Sorry.
The wobbliness of The Honourable Woman extended to even the smaller details. For all its globe-trotting pretences, it was often let down by cheaply executed sets (the White House press room and an airport cafe/lounge looking particularly ropey) and setpieces (the helicopter extraction of Nessa and Atika all bright lights and wind machines, and the devastating terrorist attack lost all its impact when realised by a CG dust cloud and some polystyrene flung in the air). A peculiar camera angle here and there felt like overcompensating for the often poorly edited shot reverse shots that made most conversations feel lifeless. When even the subtitles are making mistakes (see below), it felt like the whole show was deliberately trying to annoy me.
Ultimately though, as producer, writer and director, the buck stops with Hugo Blick. My criticisms seem like nitpicks, but they are demonstrative of a general feeling that for all the talent, craft, money and expertise that went in one end, what came out was disappointing, sometimes even laughable. And this from the guy who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents too.
In my quest to take a chance on more serious British drama, The Honourable Woman was a non-starter. But where do I go next? Are the likes of Broadchurch, Southcliffe, Happy Valley, The Fall, Line of Duty, et al really as good as people say, or are opinions warped by BAFTA nominations and a need to champion homegrown output in the face of the competition offered by on-demand streaming of high-quality Hollywood productions? Your thoughts and suggestions please…