Anyone who followed the news last year regarding ITV’s factual drama Honour will know about the added scrutiny screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes is now facing.
The two-part series focuses on the real-life police investigation into the death of Banaz Mahmod, a 20-year-old Iraqi Kurdish woman who was brutally murdered in 2006 in a so-called ‘honour killing’ on the orders of her father and uncle, after she left her abusive husband to be with another man. However, the show attracted controversy before it had even begun filming.
Banaz’s sister, Payzee Mahmod, criticised the drama last summer in an interview with the BBC, questioning the show’s focus on DCI Caroline Goode, the former Scotland Yard detective portrayed by Keeley Hawes, rather than Banaz’s story. (Payzee exclusively told RadioTimes.com more recently that she’s now “pleased the conversation is being had,” but the debate around Honour has continued.)
A statement by Hughes, in which she described the drama as an “ultimately… uplifting [story]” due to “the sheer heroism and dedication of the police officers who hunted down her killers,” was also met with criticism.
Actor and writer Furquan Akhtar tweeted: “It shifts the story from being about [Mahmod] to the white detective who ‘got her justice’. The project has a white lead, writer and director.”
The opening moments of Honour episode one may not dispel anxieties about the show’s focus on Goode: the first minute or so is a close shot of Keeley Hawes in character as she drives to the police station, chuckling occasionally at the cheesy radio programme she’s listening to.
But the key thing here is that this is where Goode’s days start and end for us as a viewer: on her way to – or on her way from – work. Similarly to Netflix’s Criminal, we never see the police team’s home lives; there are none of those ubiquitous crime drama scenes where a police detective pours themselves a glass of wine at their kitchen table while half-listening to their partner. Anything we do learn of the detectives’ personal issues, we learn within the context of the job, as another employee would.
When an analyst tearfully announces she’s been “binned” by her boyfriend, she says so in the office, and even this scrap of private information is only revealed because of its context in relation to the case: the analyst in question has been caught sleeping under her desk, obsessed with cracking a key piece of information that might ‘save’ Banaz, whom at that stage the team still believe to be alive. Goode and her team are desperate to make up for other police officers’ failings: Banaz went to the police for help multiple times before her death, even supplying a list of names.
Banaz (played briefly but with great sensitivity by newcomer Buket Komur) never appears on-camera beyond blurry police tapes played back in Goode’s office – but she is always the unseen focus of Goode and her officers in both tightly-wound episodes.
The only time we see the team in a social setting is at riverside drinks near the end of the second episode, which I felt was a slight misstep – it would have been more powerful to see Goode return straight to the office following the final court scene.
Whether or not Goode should be the focus of Honour, Hawes (who also produces) still excels in the role; particularly in the final few minutes or so of the first episode, which takes her from tearful vulnerability to steely resolve and a loaded stare in the face of Banaz’s murderer.
Rhianne Barreto (Amazon’s Hanna) is brilliant as the frank and brave Bekhal, Banaz’s older sister who eventually offers to testify against her own father and uncle, forcing her to enter witness protection. Moe Bar-El, who plays Banaz’s real-life boyfriend Rahmat Sulemani, perfectly captures his quiet devastation.
However, there wasn’t enough seen of Banaz’s former community, and the sexist, oppressive atmosphere alluded to that led to Bekhal running away before the events of in drama. That atmosphere is explained to Goode (the viewer’s stand-in) by members or former members of the community, but never fully witnessed or experienced by the viewer. Whenever we meet Banaz’s father or uncle, they are the versions of themselves that they want the police or jury to see – not the versions that so terrified Banaz and her sister.
Never mind the fact that we never see the police detectives’ private lives – we never see the victim’s. Honour would have been a very different drama if the viewer had been privy to Banaz’s own personal life and thoughts.
The series ends with a repeat of the grainy police footage, with Banaz looking straight into the eyes of the viewer – but it is still the version of herself she presents to the police. She cannot speak in her mother tongue; she never expresses her hopes and dreams.
Honour is still a very good drama, but whether or not it assuages its critics’ early fears remains to be seen.
Honour airs over two nights on Monday 28th and Tuesday 29th September 2020 at 9pm on ITV. Contact IKWRO Women’s Rights Organisation for more information about Honour Based Abuse.
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