The timing of “The Honorable Woman” could not be more disturbing.
As rockets rain on Israel and the civilian death toll in Gaza keeps mounting, a new television miniseries explores one of the most intractable and insidious conflicts of the modern world: the hostility between the CIA and British intelligence.
“The Honorable Woman,” which began Thursday on Sundance TV, is a smart, moodily complex thriller about a British-Israeli woman seeking to bring prosperity to the Palestinians.
The series isn’t really about the war in the Middle East, even though that struggle provides a scary, mournful backdrop. Sundance is a producer, but this is a BBC series that is as preoccupied with the waning of British power as it is with today’s conflagration.
Accordingly, as the title suggests, the show is a lavish homage to John le Carré — “The Honourable Schoolboy” in spirit and “The Little Drummer Girl” in setting.
And in many a le Carré novel, it’s not the ground combatants in “The Honorable Woman” who are the main cause of so much pain, violence and deceit, but the shadowy chess masters, who manipulate more gullible pawns in a greater game. (Two rival spies actually play chess against each other in the show.)
But while there are some deeply disturbing images, “The Honorable Woman” is an astute, sensitive and at times delicate psychological drama that is evenhanded in the nonincendiary sense of the word: No side is entirely to blame, and there are villains, victims and dupes on both sides.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is captivating as Nessa Stein, a London-based heiress whose father was a legendary arms manufacturer and Zionist. She and her older brother, Ephra (Andrew Buchan), are dual citizens of Israel and Britain. They beat their father’s weapons business into a high-tech plowshare: a communications company with a charitable foundation that has the lofty goal of bringing fiber-optic cable and the Internet to the West Bank.
The death of a Palestinian businessman who was in London to seal a contract with the Stein Foundation draws the attention of British intelligence. Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea), head of the Middle Eastern desk, is a shaggy relic of an old-boy network that has been supplanted by a new-girl cabal.
The United States is, as ever, a blundering giant that tries to dictate policy to the British government.
Hugh is also threatened by a younger, more ambitious and steely British competitor who works in the Washington office, Monica Chatwin (Eve Best), and he cannot count on the full support of his superior, Julia Walsh (Janet McTeer), a cool, confident manipulator who has her eyes on becoming the top spy.
“The Honorable Woman” is a complicated, convoluted mix of action, suspense and family melodrama, a combination that couldn’t be pulled off without good writing and a strong cast.
Hugo Blick (“The Shadow Line”) created, wrote and directed this eight-part miniseries. Gyllenhaal is remarkable playing a principled but conflicted woman whose quicksilver personality alters from hour to hour and flashback to flash-forward.
Where to watch
New episodes of “The Honorable Woman” air Thursday at 9 p.m. on Sundance TV. Viewers who missed Thursday’s first installment can catch it Tuesday at 8 p.m., where episodes from the previous week will air throughout the series’ eight-week run.