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Gyllenhaal’s nuanced performance lifts ‘Honorable Woman’

By David Wiegand
San Francisco Chronicle
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Maggie Gyllenhaal in the Sundance Channel’s original series “The Honorable Woman.”

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It’s difficult to ignore the flaws in “The Honorable Woman,” but it’s impossible to look away when Maggie Gyllenhaal delivers a richly nuanced performance as a woman whose personal life and family legacy become entangled in the impenetrable labyrinth of Middle Eastern politics. The eight-part miniseries premieres Thursday on the Sundance Channel.

Gyllenhaal (“Crazy Heart”) plays Nessa Stein, who, as a child, witnessed the assassination of her father, a Zionist arms manufacturer. Now, just as she becomes a member of the House of Lords, Nessa is attempting to force cooperation between Israel and the West Bank by funding a massive project to connect the two entities through high-spec data cabling.

A seemingly tireless advocate for reconciliation and the public face of her late father’s corporation, Nessa is about to announce the name of the winning bidder for the project: Will it be Israeli Shlomo Zahary (Igal Naor, “Green Zone”), who has known Nessa and her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchnan, “Broadchurch”) since they were infants, or Palestinian businessman Samir Meshal (Adnan Rashed, “Letter to Obama”)? The bid goes to the Palestinian, but he’s unable to accept since he’s just been found hanged outside his hotel room.

A series of events brings the involvement of Britain’s MI6 and the permanently rumpled head of its Middle East desk, Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea, “The Shadow Line”), into the picture, including the abduction by terrorists of the young son of Atika Halibi (Lubna Azabal, “Body of Lies”), who works as a nanny for Ephra and his pregnant wife, Rachel (Katherine Parkinson, “Sherlock”).

Hayden-Hoyle is a professional pain in the butt, especially to his boss, Dame Julia Walsh (Janet McTeer, “The White Queen”), who bows to pressure from the CIA to short-circuit the investigation into Meshal’s death. But for what reason, and will Hayden-Doyle stand down or keep digging?

Bit by bit, writer/director/producer Hugo Blick (“The Shadow Line”) allows us to understand that the secrets in Nessa’s life only mirror the complexity of Middle Eastern politics. We find out she and Atika were kidnapped eight years earlier in the West Bank, but we don’t know what they were doing there.

As we ponder that question, we also want to understand Atika’s relationship to the Steins, both to Nessa and her brother, Ephra. Most of all, we long to find out why Nessa endangers her own life and gets her bodyguard Nathaniel (Tobias Menzies, “Rome”) shot trying to save the boy from his kidnappers.

Some of Nessa’s actions become logical only after the fact because of the ambitious but challenging structure of the miniseries, of which four episodes were sent to critics for review.

You truly do not begin to make much sense of any of it until the end of the second episode, and there are moments when, were it not for Gyllenhaal’s performance (and those of the rest of the cast), you’ll find yourself ready to raise the white flag.

But don’t. Although Blick’s structural concept skirts close to mannered gimmickry, it also makes artistic sense. We are slowly but unavoidably drawn into the ever-thickening mire of secrets, lies and shifting allegiances in both the lives of the characters and the constant strife in the Middle East.

The more we try to make logical sense of either, the more we both fail and are drawn more deeply into wanting to try harder – parallel conundrums.

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