The Honourable Woman: a far cry from Homeland's Carrie

Maggie Gyllenhaal displays an impeccable English accent and cool charisma in new BBC2 drama

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:18 ON Fri 4 Jul 2014

For those who accuse British TV of lacking ambition, The Honourable Woman may come as a riposte. Crammed with talent and filmed on location in London and the Middle East, BBC2's eight-part drama series packs in almost a decade of intercontinental intrigue, deceit and murder.

Writer and director Hugo Blick, whose past successes include The Shadow Line, wastes no time in staking out his narrative territory. Violence, loyalty and mistrust are all in play in the first few minutes, when we see (but don't hear) an assassination, and hear (but don't see) a member of the House of Lords swearing her oath of allegiance to the Queen.

The newly minted peer is Nessa Stein, an Anglo-Israeli businesswoman played by the American actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, her accent impeccably and sonorously English.

Nessa is the daughter of an Israeli arms dealer whose murder, three decades previously, set her on a different course. When she and her brother inherited the company, they stopped making weapons and started building bridges – or at least laying down roads and cables intended to kick-start the Palestinian economy.

Now, though, her company seems to have stumbled back onto a battlefield of sorts. At the very moment that Nessa awards her latest million-pound construction contract to a young Palestinian, he turns up dead, apparently having hanged himself. Meanwhile, an old family friend, a garrulous Israeli, is outraged that the business did not go his way.

That's a lot of information to impart in a few short scenes and, while some of it is deftly handled, the script is not without an occasional splutter and clunk.

It seems rather convenient, for example, that a senior Foreign Office official should sidle up to Nessa's brother and reassure him of her complicity. "My job is to keep secrets," she tells him. "Yours is perfectly safe."

Nevertheless, there's enough verve in in Blick's direction to stave off disbelief.

The opening scene, which extracts both style and brutality from the murder of Nessa's father, ends with the assassin falling back into a heavy hotel curtain that collapses around him.

Later, a theatre curtain falls in rich, balletic slow-motion, sweeping forward across a stage on which Nessa is about to speak. It is beautiful in its own right, but it also recalls that earlier moment of violence and heralds the programme's transition from patient psychological drama to fast-paced thriller. The violence of her father's world is about to return.

Some previewers have described The Honourable Woman as a British Homeland – a comparison invited by the collage of fractured voices and images that make up its opening credits – but the BBC series is a very different beast.

In Homeland the limits of doubt were well defined. We might have been unsure whether Brodie was a hero or villain, but we knew that this was the question being asked.

In The Honourable Woman, by contrast, uncertainty has spread like a virus. It is hard to say where any character stands on the spectrum of good and evil, and known unknowns are outnumbered by unknown unknowns.

What holds it all together is Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose character is the very opposite of Homeland’s Carrie Mathison. Cool and hard-edged even when speaking of her father’s death, she projects the kind of unlikeable charisma that gets things done.

And this, unusually, is a drama in which women are in the driving seat and men are on the periphery. Men like Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle, the outgoing head of MI5's Middle East Desk.

In Homeland he would live in a sumptuous Georgetown mansion. Here, he pokes at his microwaved meal-for-one in a damp-looking garret flat. Stephen Rea plays the part to a tee: disappointed, stoic, competent – though not entirely professional.

His past too is somewhat opaque, but we see enough to know that it is compromised. His is yet another awkward history in The Honourable Woman's well-stuffed chest of dark secrets – and the prospect of their illumination over the next eight weeks is an enticing one.

The Honourable Woman continues on BBC 2, Thursdays at 9pm

Holden Frith tweets at twitter.com/holdenfrith · 

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