Colonial Responsibilities

Maggie Gyllenhaal, in The Honorable Woman (BBC, 2014)

My mother couldn’t believe they chose to broadcast The Honourable Woman when tensions in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict are at a high, both on the ground and in the world that watches. The TV miniseries, which just ended its run in the UK, and which is still airing on Sundance in the US, is spy thriller meets melodrama, fitting for a political topic which invites such impassioned urgency, even for those without stakes in the Middle East.

Hugo Blick’s drama centres on Baroness Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) the Anglo head of the Stein Group, once her father’s arms company, but now philanthropic foundation, committed to establishing universities and communications networks in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The inter-region project of reconciliation, financial and metaphoric, is not a simple one, and made all the more challenging when their first pick for partner, Samir Meshal, dies in suspicious circumstances.

Following almost immediate is the kidnapping of Kasim, the son (or ward) of Gazan housekeeper Atika Halibi (Lubna Azabal), a form of emotional blackmail intended to direct Nessa’s next pick for partner, for indeed, she has a secret she does not wish to be released.

The secret, not even known initially to her family—brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan), sister-in law, Rachel,(Katherine Parkinson) or Uncle Shlomo (the hilarious and engaging Yigal Naor)—is, of course, uncovered in the process of the series, as are far more, given that the Steins seem to be the focus of espionage conducted by Palestinians, Israelis, Americans and the British.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in Gaza

As affecting as one expects the emotional travails of the Stein family to be, they nowhere near match the gleefully enjoyable pursuits of agent Hugh Hayden-Hoyl (the fabulous Stephen Rea) as he seeks to preserve the job he sees as under threat by agent Monica Chatwin (Eve Best) and to reconcile with the wife he lost to his career-oriented philandering with his superior, Julia Walsh (the truly superior Janet McTeer, who, in the final episode, delivers the best line spoken by any character ever). And of course, there is solving the murder of Meshal, which is where terrorist organisations of all sorts (Israeli extremists as well) come into play.

However, as the series progresses it becomes clear that there are no baddies quite as bad as  MI6 (now the Secret Intelligence Service) or the CIA. Both are taken to task for their manipulations and machinations, which can seem more self-interested than driven by a need for peaceful resolution in the Middle East. The treatment of the British is particularly interesting, suggesting a lingering ambivalence, regret, and sense of responsibility over the region, originating in the Mandate.

Although this sensibility underpins most of the narrative, something perhaps all the more damning occurs in the final episode: When the fictional America decides to back Palestinian statehood, a news report announces that China and Russia have reversed their stance, now wishing to rethink their support.

It is a cynical move that is even more corrosive than the espionage that undoes the best efforts of the Steins, because with this, Blick suggests that there is no interest in resolution in the region, because many others—a number that far exceeds those who actually live in (or are exiled from) Israel and Palestine—benefit from continued conflict. That is a statement far more brutal than the murders that take place in the episodes of this programme.


Screenshots courtesy of the BBC

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