‘The Honourable Woman’ Episode 4: ‘The Ribbon Cutter’ review

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Giving drama a backdrop of contemporary world events is a double-edged sword.

While it lends realism and gravitas to a story that might otherwise be as fantastic as it is fantastic (as it were), it can also be like trying to use a live tiger as a sofa: there’s a real danger of it biting you on the arse.

When he wrote The Honourable Woman, Hugo Blick could not have anticipated exactly what would happen just as the series went to air. But while it would have been impossible to foresee the murder of Israeli youths by members of Hamas, the retaliation from Israeli extremists, the rocket attacks on Israel from Hamas, Israel’s air strikes and subsequent ground assault on Gaza, or the wholesale slaughter of innocent Palestinians including women and children, he could have made an educated guess.

The recent history of Israel and Palestine is a seemingly endless cycle of violence, steeped in decades of blood and recrimination; a tale of spies, shagging, secrets and shame was always in danger of being overtaken by a reality far grimmer than any thriller.

Then again, maybe Blick figured it was a risk worth taking – even though there’s a chance of the show being taken off air to avoid offending sensibilities or (perhaps more likely) for fear of giving ammunition to those who claim the BBC is irretrievably mired in political bias. The Arab/Israeli Conflict is unresolved; the pain of the past has never been healed; progress comes in faltering steps that seem doomed to be undone. Nessa Stein’s life mirrors the situation so exactly it’s almost impossible to imagine her story being set anywhere else.

The Honourable Woman

The Middle East takes centre-stage for the first time in ‘The Ribbon Cutter’: an episode-long flashback which explains the circumstances of Nessa’s (Maggie Gyllenhaal) first meeting with Atika (Lubna Azabal) eight years earlier and their subsequent abduction. This backstory forms the backbone of The Honourable Woman, and while it’s pleasing to note that our hypothesis last week was correct – Kasim is Nessa’s son, not Atika’s – the circumstances of his conception are about as gruesome as you can get.

After being taken hostage by terrorists (although not Hamas, it seems) for a ransom of $1.5m – the same sum filtered through the Stein Group by a Republican donor in the US to facilitate the release of an Israeli soldier in Palestinian custody – Nessa is raped by a pill-crazed member of the cell grieving the loss of his wife and child to the war. Although he is later throttled and set on fire by a vengeful Atika, the damage is done, both in terms of the attack and its aftermath. Nessa is pregnant.

The rape scene is tough to watch and must have been pretty hellish to film, but the performances of Gyllenhaal and Azabal – the former emotionless, blank-faced, horror locked off like a disused attic, the latter convulsed with righteous fury – shine like beacons in blackness.

Even Andrew Buchan (who demonstrates that there’s more to Ephra Stein than Hugh Grant-gone-to-seed foppery: the steely coldness he shows towards his sister rusts away when he’s reduced to tears by an Israeli official) struggles to match them. These are peerless performances in a programme that is rapidly pulling ahead of the pack.


Airs at 9pm on Thursday 24 July 2014 on BBC Two.

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