Opening with a breathy voiceover from an accurately English-accented Maggie Gyllenhaal as businesswoman Nessa Stein, the first episode of The Honourable Woman begins twenty-nine years ago with a shocking and unexpectedly graphic moment and doesn't really let up from there. Fast forward to the present, we find Nessa receiving a life peerage, something which causes political turmoil due to her positioning as an Israeli engaged in philanthropic work in the Middle East.
The opening credit sequence feels like a perfect way to begin talking about this episode. It's full of enigmatic images at one stage before moving on to something considerably less subtle at others. It ends on a chess piece, long held as a symbol of political machinations from House of Cards to X-Men. So far, that's about as overt a symbol as you'll get for the rest of the narrative as the ramifications of Nessa's peerage manifest themselves in unexpected ways.
Like any good BBC political drama, cards are kept very close to the chest and Maggie Gyllenhaal with her inscrutable expression forms the cold centre of the unfolding mystery. She's imperious yet vulnerable, wracked with anxiety yet capable of delivering the kind of speech we all hope we'd be able to give in such a situation. It's a masterful performance that draws you in without offering too many answers just yet, dripfeeding us instead.
That goes for the narrative too which is set in motion by the apparent suicide of the communications CEO just awarded a multi-million pound contract with Nessa's company. That involves MI6 in the form of a bedraggled Stephen Rea, about to be retired and working on the suicide as his final case.
He's one of several players who are introduced here, most of whom are connected to Nessa or her family in some way. The ever-excellent Andrew Buchan plays her brother, Ephra, also shows the trauma of losing their father in such a sudden and brutal way as well as having his own secrets, possibly to do with Eve Best's MI6 agent. Though the episode doesn't focus too much on him or his family situation just yet, Buchan's nuanced performance promises much moving forward.
Throughout the episode, there's a sense of uneasiness as a result of the graphic deaths at the beginning that only grows as the episode progresses. Camera angles watch the characters from afar, as if dropping in on secretive aspects of their lives whilst other characters watch them from a distance. By the time we get to the climactic scenes at the Royal College of Music, that mysterious atmosphere is just as disquieting as the strobe lighting that begins to go off. The closing scenes leave us with even more questions, just as it should be in such a labyrnthine drama.
It's a promising start to a series that has been highly anticipated thanks to Gyllenhaal's presence and she doesn't disappoint. Whether it will reach the giddy heights set by State of Play remains to be seen, but it certainly has an atmosphere that has left me very intrigued.
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