In recent weeks, the creator of “The Honorable Woman,” an eight-part series debuting Thursday on Sundance, has gone out of his way to express what the show is not: A reaction to recent events. Although the story deals specifically, vividly and hauntingly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, British writer-director Hugo Blick has stated that it should not be seen as offering insight on or analysis of current events in the Middle East, particularly the Gaza Strip.
This is just one of several instances in which Blick sells his own remarkable creation inexplicably short.
Of course “The Honorable Woman” attempts to offer insight on and analysis of current events, because one of the story’s main and most thought-provoking points is that in the Middle East there are no current events. Or at least no events that are simply current. Everything that happens there is weighted and contoured by everything that has happened there, stretching back to biblical times.
As the characters make clear one way or another, it is nearly impossible to imagine the region’s future precisely because it has no real present — every action is also a symbol of the centuries-old conflict in its entirety, interpreted in differing, mostly contradictory ways by all parties.
The woman in Blick’s title is honorable, if indeed the title is sincere, which it may not be. She alone seems willing to put down all the bloodstained baggage and forge ahead, like Moses crossing the floor of the Red Sea, oblivious to the impossible and deadly walls of water on either side.
Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a child of slaughter. Much of her family died in the Holocaust. Her father, who survived, went on to create an armament company that sold weapons to Israel; we meet Nessa as a young witness to his assassination.
Now a baroness, she and her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan) have, apparently, taken the company in a different direction. They are about to enter the final phase of providing telecommunication infrastructure from Israel to the West Bank, where it will light up the school they have founded there.
Not surprisingly, the project, though real and apparently dear to Nessa’s heart, is mostly a fiber-optic MacGuffin; there are more layers of money, murder and political manipulation at work than sheets of phyllo in baklava.
Indeed, between the title and the almost instant appearance of MI5 as interpreted by great U.K. actors — Stephen Rea is the wise but weary Middle East chief, Janet McTeer his personally and politically ruthless boss — “The Honorable Woman” seems the spiritual scion of John le Carré, a compliment of the highest order.
It is also a splendid example of the brave new world of television. All of the marvels of the genre’s Age of Exploration are at work here: The film star and flawless international cast, the eight-episode, international co-production (Sundance and the BBC), the high-production location shots and gorgeous cinematography, the slow-reveal pace and political aspirations. They combine to make “The Honorable Woman” a thing of beauty that would not have existed 10, or even five years ago.
And a thing of beauty it is. With her wide mystic’s eyes and Siren-like voice, Gyllenhaal’s performance all but defies description. By turns sweet and steely, humane and meta-human, her Nessa burns with a cold self-imposed stillness born of anguish and fury, and is like no modern woman we have ever seen before on any screen. Elizabeth I as corporate peacemaker; Medea, without the marital issues.
The supporting cast is just as fine — in addition to Rea and McTeer, Igal Naor brings depth and bluster to the family “friend” Shlomo Zahary; Eve Best is Monica Chatwin, another MI5 schemer, and Lubna Azabal is Atika Halabi, Ephra’s nanny and Nessa’s one confidant.
As early episodes reveal slowly, Nessa and Atika shared a traumatic experience eight years earlier. This event provides the mainframe for the story within the story, an international overlap of the personal and the political that is the hallmark of every great drama.
And “The Honorable Woman” is great, in the most traditional sense of the word, which makes its flaws all the more frustrating. The first three episodes are often overwhelmed by soundtrack and studded with near-still-life shots meant, apparently, to offset the shootouts and establish the High Art factor of the series. Sometimes the lingering close-up or frozen interior shots work, but too often they feel strained and calculated, as if Blick were trying too hard to make “The Honorable Woman” something more than television.
Which at this point is unnecessary and even absurd; as Sundance itself proved with “Rectify,” television is now a sovereign nation, writing its own laws, answerable to no one. And with a cast and a story like this one, “The Honorable Woman” doesn’t need to linger on blowing curtains or an enigmatic gaze to establish itself as art; that pedigree is obvious from the moment Gyllenhaal opens her mouth.
‘The Honorable Woman’
When: 10 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)