'Honorable Woman': Sundance spy thriller plunges into scary world
Discriminating TV viewers (I'm aware that sounds like a contradiction in terms) will want to seek out Sundance's The Honorable Woman (10 p.m. Thursday).
The eight-episode British import is artful and atmospheric, remarkable though demanding. Its star, Maggie Gyllenhaal, gives a performance so subtle, stately, and splendid, she should start working on her 2015 Emmy acceptance speech.
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Gyllenhaal plays Nessa Stein, the head of the philanthropic Stein Foundation, which funds ambitious projects designed to bring peace and prosperity to the Middle East.
Ironically, her father was Eli Stein, a munitions maker who was known as "the Sword of Israel." His heir is busily beating swords into plowshares.
As the series begins, Nessa is receiving a special appointment by the House of Lords. And then bedlam erupts, in a complex and violent skein that runs from the West Bank to London to Washington.
As the head of the Secret Intelligence Service (Janet McTeer of Damages) says of Nessa's parliamentary commission, "I think they were hoping for an insight into the Middle East. Not a practical demonstration."
The script by Hugo Blick is reminiscent of a John le Carré thriller. The Smiley of this saga is Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea), the departing head of the Middle East desk for the MI6. His last case is the apparent suicide of a prominent Palestinian businessman, and Hayden-Hoyle is determined to get to the bottom of it.
The Honorable Woman is a fascinating plunge into the scary and treacherous world of modern espionage and diplomacy. So many people, so many secrets. Conversations take place in which the eyes are telling very different stories than the lips are. And everything can be wielded as a weapon, even intimacy.
The cast is excellent, especially Tobias Menzies (Game of Thrones) as Nessa's head of security and Igal Naor as an old family friend.
The playing field and the characters' ulterior motives keep resetting as this Sundance project (Ch. 55 on Comcast; Ch. 235 on FiOS' Extreme and Ultimate packages; Ch. 557 on DirecTV) progresses.
The almost contemplative tone of the piece makes the suspenseful moments jump off the screen. But the pace, which is decidedly deliberate to begin with, slows about halfway through, as the political becomes deeply personal. The scope of the story shrinks somewhat as well.
But once you've reached that point (as they have in Britain, where this show is running four weeks ahead of us), you'll be too involved to jump ship.
You'll also be discovering that "honorable" has more than one interpretation.
The Honorable Woman
10 p.m. Thursday on SundanceTV