Ruth Wilson is one of this country’s brightest and best. Ever since breaking through in 2006’s Jane Eyre, she’s impressed in The Affair, Luther, Saving Mr. Banks, Dark River and the National Theatre’s Hedda Gabler. It’s a delight, then, to see her not only star in three-part drama Mrs. Wilson, but also provide the inspiration for the story, as she brings to the life the tale of her own grandmother, Alison.
Married to Alec (Iain Glen) for many happy years, his sudden death in the opening minutes put us firmly in the same boat as her: shocked, saddened and still reeling. But Alec’s unexpected heart attack opens up a whole can of festering worms, as out from his past crawls a number of secrets that only heighten the shock further. The biggest? That he had another wife, Dorothy (Keeley Hawes), who also has a son.
More twists and turns follow from there, but Mrs. Wilson succeeds because it doesn’t simply deal in exposition and shock revelations; it explores the emotional ramifications of each new discovery. That means that the always-wonderful Hawes gets her own share of screen-time to explore Dorothy’s confusion and pain at her crossing paths Alison; the chance to see the two women act together is worth tuning in for alone, but the fact that they’re navigating the complex waters of two wives both in mourning for a husband they thought they knew makes it all the more affecting.
Iain Glen brings enough rascally charm and gravelly regret to his role that we can understand, at least, how the women could fall for him and his deception. After all, he was an MI6 officer, and, so he tells Alison, he’s dismissed from the serve to go into the field as an undercover agent. Subsequent bankruptcy and a stint in prison are part of that cover identity – or are they?
Anna Symon, a former journalist making her dramatic debut, sinks her script’s teeth into the boundaries between truth and lies, finding nuances and sympathies in each conflicting account of events. It’s a battle of perspectives, passions and trusts, leading everyone to question what exactly they know. Double, triple or even quadruple lives are waiting in the wings threatening to disrupt the status quo, and the heart-wrenching aftermath of each one is still rippling through everyone else’s single life decades later.
The result is an elegant, gripping back and forth that gradually reveals more facts with every cycle – a ride anchored by Wilson, who impeccably captures the tragic strength of Alison, a woman determined to uncover more yet unable to face its very tangible consequences. And at the very heart of this very personal puzzle box is the poignant fact that Alec was a novelist, a man who invented narratives partly just for his own peace of mind; sometimes, the most powerful, affecting stories are the ones you tell yourself. What a fantastically tiny big-hitter to close out an excellent year of TV.