TV Review: The Honourable Woman, The Empty Chair

Thus far 2014 has been the year of the actress on television. We’ve already seen Keeley Hawes grip the nation as the broken-but-calculating police detective Lindsay Denton in BBC2’s sickeningly tense Line of Duty and a gritty Sarah Lancaster give a career-defining performance in the inappropriately named Happy Valley (BBC1).

And it is the Beeb who once again provide the platform for another outstanding performance from a female lead as American movie star Maggie Gyllenhaal gives a mesmerising turn in Hugo Blick’s new eight-part thriller The Honourable Woman, which began on BBC2 last night.

Gyllenhaal stars as Nessa Stein, an Anglo-Israeli business woman who has just been made a life peer in the House of Lords. It’s 20 years on from the day she witnessed the brutal assassination of her Zionist father and Nessa has since transformed his weapons manufacturing company into a force for good, unveiling plans to tear down the “strong walls” of the Israeli-Palestine conflict by bringing faster broadband to the West Bank. The optimistic development is abruptly compromised, however, by the sudden death of her business partner, which draws the interest of Stephen Rea’s soon-to-retire spook, Hugh Hayden-Doyle.

It’s Gyllenhaal’s fantastic performance that sets what would otherwise be a dull opening episode alight. Adopting a flawless English accent, Gyllenhaal deftly switches between engaging, affable public speaker and stern businesswoman, refusing to acquiesce to threats when cancelling the contract of an old family friend. Nessa becomes even more fascinating when her fragile state out mind bursts to the surface, as she sobs “I can’t do this” to her family nanny during a secret rendezvous. Her past has been beset by so much violent tragedy that she almost expects it to follow her around every corner, the powerful vein a paranoia that runs through this episode further emphasized by her use of a panic room.

Such mistrust is clearly understandable given that practically everyone she knows is lying to conceal some sort of secret or betrayal. Blick loves to blur the lines between good and bad until it’s hard to know who, if anyone, to trust and he’s up to the same trick here, asking us in Nessa’s opening narration: “Who do you trust? How do you know?”

Blick then proceeds to spend the next hour proving his point by showing us that no one here – not the millionaire philanthropist, or her supportive brother, or the dedicated spy – are truly who they appear.

Naturally, The Empty Chair is an elliptical episode, with every character speaking in purely ambiguous terms, as Blick takes the time to indulge in the highly stylized flourishes that proved so divisive in 2011’s The Shadow Line. Whilst there is a beguiling beauty to the early slow-motion close-ups of flowing gowns and billowing, blood splattered curtains, the continuous scenes of Nessa artfully travelling through a bizarrely deserted London feel like overkill. This reaches its zenith at the halfway point when Blick launches into a prolonged montage of Nessa watching old family films as a Radiohead track plays for absolutely no reason.

It’s more than worth it, though, when the episode reaches its sudden, dizzyingly tense end, contrasting the plodding reality of the previous 50 minutes, as Nessa is left stranded helplessly in the dark as her nephew is whisked away by two masked criminals on a motorbike in a real, random moment of tragedy.

Clearly, this kind of slow, melodic thriller is not to everyone’s taste, but perhaps the best advice is to just stick with it because, as he has proven in the past, Blick has the talent to weave thrilling twists, cold violence and complex mysteries into genuinely satisfying resolutions. And with Maggie Gyllenhaal there to mesmerise with a formidable performance in the meantime, The Honourable Woman may yet turn out to be Britain’s next inextricably gripping drama.

Click here to watch the trailer for The Honourable Woman


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