"The Honorable Woman" is a meditative thriller that investigates a woman's inner life and a global hot spot. Poised between dream-state and tough reality, it exposes timeless truths while remaining as current as the next Israeli-Palestinian clash.
An eight-hour miniseries premiering Thursday at 10 p.m. ET on SundanceTV, "The Honorable Woman" is a virtuoso effort by Hugo Blick, who wrote and directed it.
And in the lead role of Baroness Nessa Stein, an Anglo-Israeli businesswoman who wants to span a raging divide with communication cables laid between Israel and the West Bank, Maggie Gyllenhaal delivers the most nuanced yet full-bodied performance you could hope to see.
The film was shot during five months in London and Morocco, with Andrew Buchan co-starring as Nessa's brother and business partner; Janet McTeer ("Damages") as head of the British spy agency MI6, pressing its own geopolitical agenda for the region; and Stephen Rea ("The Crying Game"), who's especially splendid as the outgoing head of MI6's Middle East desk.
Politically charged, laden with foreign intrigue and family secrets, the series is, in short, magnificent.
"I was really intrigued with exploring the psychology of a woman within the chassis of a thriller," said Blick, a 49-year-old filmmaker who claims such British series as "The Shadow Line" and "Sensitive Skin" among his credits. "The issue of intractable polarity, but with the chance of reconciliation, is what the story is engaged in."
But what happens when the conflict exists not only in the outside world, but also, for Nessa, lodged deep within her soul and her indelible past?
"It's often the case that when people stand on the world stage it's a diversionary technique from dealing with the very vacuum that's inside themselves that they feel their role in public life can help them fill," said Blick with a wry grin and a blistering laugh.
Seated beside him for this recent interview at a Los Angeles hotel, Gyllenhaal was training her saucer-size blue eyes on him, listening and nodding thoughtfully as if none of what he voiced she'd ever heard before.
Maybe she hadn't.
"Hugo and I didn't talk very much when we were working," she said. "I don't like to have conversations like this when I'm working."
The 36-year-old actress, whose films include "Sherrybaby," ''Crazy Heart," ''World Trade Center" and "The Dark Knight," explained that on "The Honorable Woman," she and Blick related on a level beyond words.
"Hugo was the most trusting director I've ever worked with in my life," said Gyllenhaal as she unwittingly invoked a key question - "Who do you trust?" - that serves as the first sentence her character utters.
"And I've never, ever played a character who was more fully, wholly, truly formed than this one," she went on. "Hugo had written all eight episodes before we began, but so many things about her surprised me! So I would kind of walk into each scene knowing what I knew about Nessa, then see how it expressed itself. And then I would think, 'OK, that scene happened. Now, where are we?'"
"Maggie knew exactly where the character was traveling towards," argued Blick with a smile. "Essentially all I had to do was go, 'OK, I'll put the camera here, because that's the best place to witness her delivering this character.'"
"It is much more interesting to watch an actor actually learning something," Gyllenhaal persisted, "rather than watch someone pretend like they're learning something. You can set up a situation for yourself that includes your own issues, terrors, strengths, and then put yourself in that situation, and when you do the scene you can learn many things. That was always what I was trying to accomplish.
"Nessa has to go through this journey," said Gyllenhaal, who clearly puts a premium on trust, "and I went through it, too."