The empty world of Palestine-set BBC drama “The Honorable Woman”

The Honorable Woman, shown on TV in Britain and the US this summer and now released on DVD, has been heralded by mainstream critics as a rare attempt to tackle the issue of Palestine in a serious television drama, writes Sarah Irving.

The title, like much of the series, seems deliberately multi-faceted. Does it refer to the ennoblement of central character Nessa Stein (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), a British-Israeli businesswoman elevated to the British House of Lords for her efforts towards “peace in the Middle East?” The term “honorable” has overtones of the British House of Commons, where Members of Parliament address one another as “the honorable member.”

Or does it refer to Nessa’s stubborn adherence to her principles in the face of corruption and double-dealing (a key theme)? Is there a nod to John Le Carre’s 1977 spy novel The Honourable Schoolboy, since many of the series’ tropes seem to draw on his work, as well as on-screen inspirations such as Homeland and (less salubriously) long-running BBC spy drama Spooks?

Secret

The main storyline (and there are innumerable sub-plots and tangents to grapple with) is this: Nessa Stein’s father, an Irgun terrorist during the Nakba and then a weapons manufacturer for the State of Israel, is murdered in front of her and her brother Ephra when they are children.

They grow up to inherit the family empire, which Nessa refocuses on communications rather than armaments, with Ephra heading up a foundation which builds universities and hospitals in the occupied West Bank and present-day Israel.

But, we learn, Nessa has a “secret,” and this is being used against her, and against Stein Group’s supposedly noble aims to bring high-speed internet to the West Bank.

Since this is all very high-profile and internationally significant, the US, British and Israeli secret services are in it up to their necks. There are also major businessmen — Israeli and Palestinian — bidding for the internet contracts (one might expect such projects to be targeted by US, Japanese or EU companies, but none appear. That wouldn’t work, plot-wise).

Empty

The story’s many convolutions and layers are drawn out over eight episodes, each spanning an hour (minus advertisements). A major problem — before we get to issues of politics and representation — is that the material simply doesn’t warrant it.

One suspects that writer-director Hugo Blick has indulged in a few too many Frenchnoirs, but there are only so many shots of Gyllenhaal’s manicured hand draped over a chair-back, or of Ephra Stein’s wife and his housekeeper staring at one another down white corridors, that one can take.

Many of the scenes in the Honourable Woman had empty scenery.
Many of the scenes in The Honourable Woman had empty scenery.

The Honorable Woman takes place in a curiously empty world; in the few outdoor scenes, whether in central London or downtown Rafah, there are never any passers-by doing ordinary things (witnesses, one senses, might be inconvenient to the storyline and the aesthetic).

This heavily stylized manner also seeps into the script and acting. Gyllenhaal’s performance is, at times, almost valium-laden. Supposedly the head of a multi-million dollar business, she never appears to do any work, and has two main settings — speech-making or looking blankly at people trying to bully information from her, and then bursting into tears. Dialogue remains minimal, replaced by people making stylized, often stilted proclamations at one another.

Similarly unconvincing are the various spies (British and US) who, despite having senior roles in Middle East departments, seem to know almost nothing about the region.

The result is that it is difficult to engage with The Honorable Woman on an emotional level — and it’s hard to watch eight hours of TV about a bunch of people one doesn’t care about. There are exceptions — especially Rachel, Ephra’s wife, movingly played by Katherine Parkinson as a woman whose marriage is being torn apart and children threatened by other people’s secrets.

Politics

Since The Honorable Woman purports to be a serious dramatic take on Palestine, it seems fair to critique its depiction of the situation.

The Guardian’s take on this was that Blick “seeks to insure himself against the political incorrectness of the whole oriental stereotype by making the CIA and its British lackeys the meanest and most deceptive baddies of all.”

On one level this is true. It is the British and US secret services which are depicted as pulling the strings, and as being most willing to manipulate, corrupt and cold-bloodedly kill off pretty much anybody.

Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaa) is the daughter of a wealthy Israeli arms manufacturer who was murdered in front of her when she was a child.
Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaa) is the daughter of a wealthy Israeli arms manufacturer who was murdered in front of her when she was a child.

The degree, and style, of stereotyping of the Palestinian and Israeli characters is, however, more problematic. They aren’t the only cardboard cut-outs (Hugh Hayden-Hoyle as George Smiley’s even more hangdog younger brother?) — but what these stereotypes do in these more delicate circumstances is disturbing.

Almost every Palestinian — with one sort-of exception — is either a fighter (“terrorist”) or a slick government spokesman who mouths clichés about “martyrs for the cause.” The exception is Atika Halibi (Lubna Azabal), a translator who shares Nessa’s captivity in Gaza and then comes to the UK with her as part of the hostage deal. She is the main Palestinian voice in the series, but remains cold and secretive until the penultimate episode.

One of the effects of this is that, in contrast, we see plenty of Jewish personal interaction — warm and caring or angry and conflictual. Shlomo Zahary (Igal Naor), an Israeli businessman and friend of the Stein family, is the key stereotype: a big, family-loving, hard-talking tough guy. He doesn’t quite go around saying “oy vey,” but he’s not far off.

But no Palestinians in The Honorable Woman quite attain the status of “human being.” They are “bad” “terrorists” or “good” grateful recipients of Stein Group aid and — even more improbably — admiring audiences at Nessa’s excruciatingly patronizing speeches as she launches another phase of her Internet project.

Misrepresentation

The whole Internet discourse is, meanwhile, laughable. Doesn’t anyone associated with this series know how well-wired the West Bank is? Have they not witnessed Palestinian use of social media in recent years? Don’t they realize that the West Bank has plenty of universities and hospitals — it’s just that people can’t reach them, or they are closed down or bombed by Israeli occupation forces?

This ignorance of the basic facts of daily life in Palestine pops up throughout, whether in checkpoint procedures or the overall depiction of Palestine as an impoverished charity recipient.

The most troubling misrepresentation of Palestinian actions lies, however, at the heart of the plot. Nessa’s big secret (this is a bit of a spoiler, but you’d have figured it out pretty quickly) is that she was raped after being kidnapped by what is meant to be (however improbably) a renegade Fatah splinter group hiding out in southern Gaza just after Hamas was elected in 2006.

hwThe rape isn’t a random act, but one ordered by the faction’s leader (a Blofeld-like villain with a medical drip instead of a white cat) and carried out by his son, with the express intention of getting Nessa pregnant so that she will bear a child who will be the grandson of the Palestinian fighter who ordered her father’s assassination.

There are various major problems with this plot device, beyond its biological improbability. Firstly, it reduces the Palestinian cause to the level of a tiny, breakaway splinter group impelled by personal hatreds, rather than a resistance to occupation and oppression.

Secondly, proven cases — even credible accusations — of sexual violence by Palestinian armed factions are vanishingly rare, if not non-existent. There are plenty of examples of rape being used as a weapon of war by western armies, but it is no whitewash to say that it is not an allegation that stands up against the Palestinians, and to use it in a supposedly serious drama like this is deeply troubling.

What, then, can be said in conclusion? The Honorable Woman is a tightly (if sometimes improbably) plotted thriller. It is often beautifully (perhaps too beautifully) shot and, if one can handle the stylization, there is some interesting acting.

But as a dramatic effort to tackle one of the most pressing issues of our time, its inability to grasp basic facts make it ultimately a failure. Hugo Blick obviously has some interesting ideas about how to make modern TV thrillers, but his ambitions outreach his abilities, or at least his research skills.

Sarah Irving is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone, a collection of contemporary Palestinian poetry in translation. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh.

This article was first published on the Electronic Intifada website on 12/09/14.

You can follow Sarah and Electronic Intifada on Twitter @sarahonline_ @intifada

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