Television: Gyllenhaal dips her toe in television; Norah Casey puts a foot in the grave

Maggie Gyllenhaal is terrific in ‘The Honourable Woman’ while ‘Way to Go’ looks at death in a roundabout way

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

Fans of writer-director Hugo Blick’s last BBC conspiracy thriller, The Shadow Line, from 2011, know not to expect plot, characters, even exact locations to be easily revealed; viewers’ full attention is required. And we know too that while a complex, intelligent and challenging thriller is guaranteed, a clear resolution isn’t. But The Honourable Woman (BBC One, Thursday), his new eight-part thriller, initially holds out the promise of a more straightforward story.

A girl, later to be the honourable woman of the title, and her brother are having lunch with their father when he is assassinated – the blood splattering over the little girl’s blank, shocked face. Blick luxuriates in these visual flourishes: later there will be chess pieces falling in slow motion as MI6 boss Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea, with a plummy accent and dogged cunning) has a secret meeting with a contact. Chess, secret meetings, safe houses – this is old-school spy territory. Cut to 29 years later and a Palestinian businessman is murdered in London; at the same time, the girl, Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal with a perfect British accent and unnerving coolness), is now robing up for a ceremony in which she is to be made Lady Stein, in honour of her services to industry.

The Honourable Woman is set in London – so far – but it’s all about the Middle East. Stein’s father was an Israeli arms dealer, but she has used her fortune to build a telecoms company, believing that, instead of a wall separating them, fibre-optic connectivity between Palestine and Israel will help build a sustainable peace. The plot seems to centre on the awarding of that lucrative contract to either an Israeli or an Arab company – a decision that’s loaded with political resonance. Each of Blick’s characters, no matter how initially straightforward, is hiding something, and each has a past that may or may not be significant.

The end scene sees her nephew kidnapped by a man in a dinner jacket – more classic spy imagery – with the drama of Stein chasing after them through an eerily empty London park. It’s smart, gripping, and fast-moving, with time shifts changing perspective and tantalising twists already emerging; Gyllenhaal, in her first major TV role, is terrific.

There are many fictional deaths on TV every night, usually involving a forensic table, an attractive pathologist and a crimefighting duo. There have, however, been some truly extraordinary and controversial documentaries featuring real deaths, such as Terry Pratchett’s 2011 BBC documentary Choosing to Die, in which he explored his options after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and Channel 4’s recent, ambitious My Last Summer, following a group of terminally ill people over a year. On RTÉ there have been powerful, well-crafted films such as The Moment of Truth special, featuring the late right-to-die campaigner Marie Fleming, and Colm Murray’s documentary MND: The Inside Trace, about valiantly living and facing death with motor neurone disease.

However, TV explorations of our way of dying are relatively rare, which makes Way to Go: Death and the Irish (RTÉ One, Tuesday) interesting, though ultimately unsatisfactory viewing, primarily because it tries to pack too much into its short screen life. It does have extraordinary contributors, though, including Marie O’Connor and Laura Keating, both terminally ill people who candidly discuss feelings about illness and their imminent deaths (the end-frame poignantly reveals they have since died), and a calm and considered Niamh Walker, who details her end-of-life plans: not the funeral, because, as she says, that’s for others, but her advanced-care directive about how much medical intervention she wants. We’re assigned a midwife to help bring someone into the world, says Walker, why not one when we are dying?

But before we get to these fascinating women, there are lengthy detours to a medieval history lesson, archive pictures from a wake, funeral directors washing their hearses, and a stonemason carving letters into a gravestone. A central premise of the programme, presented by Norah Casey (her husband Richard Hannaford died in 2011 from cancer), is that Irish people are great talking around death, in a “did you see who died” sort of way, but not good on a personal level when it comes to talking about dying. Unfortunately the film does just that: it spends too much time faffing around in history and graveyards when the more interesting story is in what the contributors have to say about dying, and what the health professionals can reveal about end-of-life care.

Way to Go is disappointing on a production level. The intrusive, bland music, random shots for atmosphere, and talking-head turns from George Hook, Marian Finucane and Gabriel Byrne to add a big-name gloss it doesn’t need, make the programme feel at times like a corporate video. And it is made in association with the Irish Hospice Foundation. Assisted suicide, for example, as a “way to go” option is not explored, while much time is given to a hospice in west Dublin that at the time of filming was not in full service due to lack of HSE funding. At other times, when talking to contributors living with death, this is powerful and enlightening television.

The period drama The Paradise (UTV) portrayed working in a Victorian shop as a couple of frills short of being glamorous. But as Dr Pamela Cox, in the second part of her social history documentary series Shopgirls: The True Story of Life Behind the Counter (BBC Two, Wednesday), points out, at the start of the 1900s, shopgirls were live-in servants, with horrendous working conditions and few rights. By mid-century, though, their status improved in the newly emerging, more egalitarian department stores such as Marks & Spencer and John Lewis.

The series is full of fascinating nuggets such as the story of suffragette shopgirl Gladys Evans, who in 1912 followed prime minister Asquith to Dublin where she set fire to the Theatre Royal to prevent him speaking; her friend, meanwhile, took a (poor) shot at John Redmond’s car. With every brilliantly researched and delivered scene, Cox makes you wonder how shopgirls became a pejorative term.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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