Maggie Gyllenhaal is ‘The Honorable Woman'

The Honorable Woman

• 9 p.m. Thursday

• SundanceTV

Posted 6:16am on Sunday, Jul. 27, 2014

The Honorable Woman is a political conspiracy thriller that feels remarkably timely in the wake of fighting in Gaza.

But the volatile Middle East as a topical backdrop wasn’t the main attraction for Maggie Gyllenhaal, an Oscar-nominated actress making her TV series debut.

“When I read the scripts, I thought they were incredible,” Gyllenhaal says. “On the one hand, they had the thriller aspect, with the twists, turns and secrets, but underneath there is this ocean of realistic human emotions.”

That’s the element that makes The Honorable Woman stand out.

Yes, the eight-episode miniseries (premiering at 9 p.m. Thursday on SundanceTV) is stuffed to overflowing with lies and double-crosses, kidnappings and murder, dirty little affairs and high-level espionage. But depth of character never takes a back seat to action, and the complex plot never goes so far over the top that it turns cartoonish.

Gyllenhaal plays the title character at the center of the intrigue.

She is Nessa Stein, an influential Anglo-Israeli businesswoman. Nessa is running the company she inherited from her father, who was murdered before her eyes when she was a child. But the Stein Group, a company that formerly supplied arms to Israel, has been turned into a charitable foundation now supplying broadband Internet access to the West Bank.

It’s part of Nessa’s naively noble efforts to help create peace, but nothing comes easy in this powder-keg part of the world. There are nefarious parties involved who are quick to exploit Nessa’s complicated, secret-laden past.

Different character

“I had never read a character like Nessa,” says Gyllenhaal, who has aced an English accent. “She is a powerful, smart, grown-up woman who is also deeply flawed and broken. She is hard and sensual, brave and childlike all at once.

“I love that the drama deals with very important, terrifying global conflicts — and really takes them on — but it is also about a woman trying to sort out similar conflicts inside her.

“Everything about Nessa is very intense. She’s just so much more alive than I am, or any of us, and that was such a joy to play. It took all of my brain, my heart, my body to play Nessa Stein.”

Co-star Stephen Rea marveled at the work she did. “I used to turn the page of the script,” he says, “and think, ‘My God, look at what Maggie Gyllenhaal has to do today!’ 

It isn’t made immediately clear how the disparate elements of a labyrinthine story, which include the murder of a Palestinian businessman and the abduction of a housekeeper’s child, fit together. But the wait for answers is a fun roller-coaster ride of domestic melodrama, political chess moves and gritty violence.

It all leads to an unforgettable fourth hour, which reveals the sequence of events from eight years earlier that has had a devastating impact on Nessa’s psyche.

Standout cast

But Gyllenhaal is hardly the only cast member who gets to flex her acting muscles. The Honorable Woman is teeming with characters who at some point within the first four hours do something totally unexpected and memorable.

Rea is one of those performers. He plays Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle, a hangdog spy attached to England’s MI6 and someone who’s easily underestimated by adversaries until it’s too late. He conducts an interrogation in the second episode that’s absolutely priceless.

Other standouts from the international cast are Andrew Buchan (as Nessa’s brother Ephra, who once ran the company but now inexplicably sits on the sidelines) and Lubna Azabal (as the Palestinian translator-turned-housekeeper whose son was taken in a scheme to manipulate Nessa’s business moves).

After more than two decades of film and stage work, which includes an Oscar-nominated performance in 2009’s Crazy Heart, Gyllenhaal says her experience working on The Honorable Woman has warmed her to television and a style of long-form storytelling that can’t be achieved in feature films.

“I know it differs from project to project, but I can see now all the benefits and autonomy television can bring,” she says. “I just loved the scope of the drama and how a television series grants you the freedom to really flesh out a character.”

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