Honour: An unsensational and nuanced genre piece
The British detective procedural show is a tonally exact genre, and Honour, a two-part drama series written by Gwyneth Hughes, is a stunning display of a generic kind of perfection, marred only by a greatly important factor: the announcement that ‘This is a true story’ which begins our journey.
The crime procedural genre is characterised by, of course, the procedure of the detective solving the case. The case at the centre of Honour was based on the true story of Banaz Mahmod (played by Buket Komur), a Kurdish-Iraqi British Citizen, who was strangled to death by two male cousins at the request of her father and uncle, who disapproved of her relationship with her boyfriend Rahmat (Moe Bar-El). Banaz was not only the victim of this so-called ‘honour’-based killing, but also the victim of ‘honour’-based oppression and female genital mutilation, although these aspects are not present in the show. Told largely from the perspective of DCI Caroline Goode, it sometimes feels as though Banaz is merely a plot point in her own story. She is shown providing a list of names of the men she suspected would kill her, having gone to – and been failed by – the police a devastating five times. Honour confines her to her case, making her life a sum of clues which lead to her death.
The show, however, really works within the conventions of the police procedural drama. It is cloudy, concrete, accented in a soundscape of suspense. The nuanced realism of DCI Caroline Goode’s performance (an understated, emotive Keeley Hawes) encapsulates the generic conventions within the first few seconds of the show, as she drives along the overcast British streets washed with concrete, before swiftly heading to a cramped, artificially lit police station. It easily hooks you in.
Being based within and around London’s insular Iraqi/Turkish community , Gwyneth Hughes’s writing is thankfully nuanced; it doesn’t draw on sensationalism to capture the audience’s attention. This feels like a considerate move, especially when the case being solved is one in which the victim was so failed by the police, and which, at the time of its occurrence, was a crime made loud by tabloid fodder. The show does not shy away from exploring the specifics of violence within a minority of the Kurdish-Iraqi community in the UK. Similarly, it cleverly brings you into the community through featuring the impassioned community leader Ahd (representing Diana Nammi of the charity IKWRO) who liaises with DCI Goode. Ahd defamiliarizes and recontextualizes a normal city hubbub to show that some men standing around are in fact looking out for female family members behaving ‘inappropriately.’ Certain characters’ lip-service insights to the baffled police force helps shed light on these issues without homogenising the community.
When presenting true crime, however, the high impact but ultimately cold nature of the procedural crime drama can become a burden. Through its focus on clues and facts unfolding to create the narrative, the police force and perpetrators of the crime become the focus, rather than the victims. Banaz mainly features through static posters of her face around the city, or grainy re-enactments of recorded footage of her reporting her harrowing concerns to the police – concerns which were, disastrously, never followed up. It is a tricky line to tread. Any more re-enactments of Banaz that were not based from real footage could have felt ethically murky, or even gratuitous – however, there still needed to be a stronger presence of Banaz to highlight the brutality of the story. For example, in Deeyah Khan’s documentary Banaz: A Love Story (2012), Banaz’s sister Bekhal, (depicted in a strong performance by Rhianne Barreto in Honour), states that Banaz’s favourite flowers were lilies. Details like these that would’ve helped to humanise her. Banaz was killed because she was spotted kissing her boyfriend outside Morden Tube Station. To ground the story of many other victims of ‘honour’ based oppression, it felt like a missed opportunity to not show other people around the station, in love and unharmed, to highlight the coldness of her case, and the many cases which go unreported.
Honour thrives within the slick bubble of genre conventions, but it would have benefited from honouring not just the (brilliant) police working her case, but by focussing more closely on the victim herself, and shining a light on the many other victims of honour based crimes. By not including any facts about the prevalence of honour killings beyond the insular case in the end credits, it is made it feel like one single awful case, rather than one of many, many awful cases.