The New Israelites: Rachel Cooke Admires a Drama about the World's Most Intractable Conflict

New Statesman (1996), February 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

The New Israelites: Rachel Cooke Admires a Drama about the World's Most Intractable Conflict


The Promise

Channel 4

Now the fuss about Boardwalk Empire has died down--come on: it's boring, isn't it?--perhaps we can all very calmly consider The Promise instead. Is Peter Kosminsky's epic new drama set in Mandate-era Palestine and 21st-century Israel fantastic? Yes, it is. Ambitious, well-written, superbly acted and expertly made, it is also provocative and challenging: the possibility exists that it might even change people's minds.

I am rarely equivocal, especially when it comes to Israel, but as I watched it--I have seen the whole series twice now, all seven hours of it--I felt even my allegiances shift and tilt. Would it have got made in the US? No, it would not. The people at HBO would no sooner commission a series as controversial and complicatedly nuanced as this than they would remake Emmerdale as a miniseries starring Sarah Jessica Parker and a pair of purple Hunter wellies.

Kosminsky, who is famed for his work ethic, writes as well as directs these days, and it turns out this is something he is rather good at. The Promise is based on years of research, and it shows: everything that happens in the series, however shocking, has some basis in historical fact. On the other hand, he hasn't allowed himself to be weighed down by his reading. At heart, The Promise is a gripping story, one that makes full use of Dickensian-style coincidences and secrets; the device Kosminsky deploys to link two narratives that take place 60 years apart is, delightfully, an old diary. Among his characters are a brave and moral soldier, a naive young woman, a handful of zealots and a lover who might not be exactly what she seems. What he has delivered, in essence, is a thumping great Victorian novel about the most intractable conflict of our age.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Erin Matthews (Claire Foy) is a student on her gap year. Sulky and impetuous, she has decided to join her friend Eliza Meyer (Perdita Weeks) in Israel; Eliza has dual nationality and is about to embark on military service. In Erin's bag is her grandfather's diary, a fragile and ghostly burden she picked up only the other day, when she and her mother were clearing out her ailing grandfather's house. …

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