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Secrets amid the Middle East conflict drive Sundance's 'The Honorable Woman'

Maggie Gyllenhaal stars in Sundance's "The Honorable Woman."
Maggie Gyllenhaal stars in Sundance's "The Honorable Woman."

It’s clear that Sundance answers to no one as they continue to push the envelope when it comes to original programming.

This is certainly true of “The Honorable Woman,” an eight part series that seems perfectly or ill-timed, depending upon how you look at it

The series is set in the Middle East and pulls no punches in depicting the struggles between nations in that region, a quest that is currently playing out for real as we witness one of the most confusing and destructive conflicts of our time unfold.

Academy Award® nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal is mesmerizing as Nessa Stein, a London-based heiress whose father was a legendary arms manufacturer. She and her older brother, Ephra (Andrew Buchan), are dual citizens of Israel and Britain, who, after their father’s assassination in front of them when they were children, have launched a communications company with a charitable foundation that has the noble goal of spanning the seething divide between Israel and the West Bank, via fiber-optic cable and the Internet.

While Nessa is determined to conduct her business affairs fairly and honestly, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians believe the Steins can remain free of the influence of societal pressures, and Nessa, with her determined altruistic ideas, truly understands the difficulty of this endeavor, but pushes forward with her plans in spite of the obstacles.

It’s Nessa’s unabashed ‘can do’ attitude that leads to immense trouble for her, her family and nearly everyone around her, the magnitude of which plays out in dark flashbacks that reveal a host of secrets and deceptions. Nessa is constantly asked by a mysterious stranger on the phone if her secret is safe. It’s quite telling that when she answers, ‘yes’ she’s in danger and when she answers ‘no’ she’s in danger. It’s this no-win situation that propels the story and keeps the viewer wondering just what could possibly happen next.

Written and directed by BAFTA® winner Hugo Blick, the cast of “The Honorable Woman” additionally stars Academy Award-nominee Stephen Rea (The Crying Game); Oscar and Tony award nominee Janet McTeer (Damages, Albert Nobbs); BAFTA award nominee Katherine Parkinson (The IT Crowd, Sherlock); Andrew Buchan (“Broadchurch,” “The Fixer”); Eve Best (Nurse Jackie, The King’s Speech); Lubna Azbal (Incendies, Body of Lies); Tobias Menzies (Game of Thrones, Rome,); and Igal Naor (300: Rise Of An Empire, Green Zone).

All are stellar but the highest of praise should go to Azbal for her gripping, raw performance as Nessa’s confidante, a position that puts her in jeopardy at nearly every turn and that forces her to make decisions no one should have to make.

If all of this sounds cryptic and vague, it is and this is all in keeping with the tone and progression of the series. There many moments in the first installments when viewers may have trouble figuring out precisely what’s happening. This is all by design and pays off handsomely as the rich, tense, compelling story unfolds

Involving London’s Whitehall and MI6 as well as the CIA in Washington, Blick moves the story seamlessly between these entities with a visual look that enhances the story, drenching it in a grayness that underlines the notion that there is no conclusive right or wrong in any of this with split-second decision-making that can only occur in the moment. It may seem utterly contradictory that while “The Honorable Woman” is a scripted drama, carefully plotted and executed, and the situation in the Middle East that it uses as a storytelling catalyst is sadly anything but, this is precisely what makes it so timely, conflicted, compelling and, ultimately, satisfying.

“The Honorable Woman” premieres Thursday, July 31st at 10e/p on Sundance.

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