TV Critic Catrin Osborne gives her view on the BBC’s latest drama Mrs Wilson and its unusual twist of the lead actress playing her own grandmother
In an era when the phrase “based on a true story” is the new norm, Mrs Wilson takes this to the next level with a metanarrative as Ruth Wilson portrays the struggle of her very own grandmother. Following hits like The Bodyguard (2018), the BBC mini-series grips viewers yet again with a period drama about a mysterious spouse.
In keeping with the feminist agenda of BBC specials, such as The Woman in White (2018) and Ordeal by Innocence (2018), Mrs Wilson explores the destruction caused by a disloyal husband. The normative 1960s domesticity of the Wilsons’ home collapses following the death of Alexander ‘Alec’ Wilson (Iain Glen). Thought to be an author, member of The Foreign Office and loving husband, the truth surrounding the man is no longer so certain. In a clever decision to focus on Ruth Wilson’s grandmother Alison Wilson (Ruth Wilson), we see this through the eyes of a victim of his fantasy.
Director Richard Laxton offers a nuanced perspective on Alec Wilson. Sympathetic with the Wilson family’s own confusion, he is neither completely a serial bigamist nor a patriotic hero. To the present day, the truth surrounding the man is unknown. Thus, Mrs Wilson draws no definitive viewpoint on the real-life Alec Wilson.
Separated into three parts, the show succeeds in creating a dramatic structure with shocking reveals at the end of each episode. Twists and turns sustain the audience’s interest till the very end as the viewer, like the Wilson family, must decipher the figure of Alec Wilson themselves.
Always creating tension, Mrs Wilson takes an atemporal narrative. Ruth Wilson carries the time-jumps in her performance as the show shifts between her naivety during The Second World War to an older, drained housewife. Requiring little ageing makeup, Wilson’s posture and facial expressions convey this effectively. Wilson’s intimate connection to the drama never jeopardises her performance as we feel wholly connected to her gradually fading hope. This is strongest in her distress at the climax of the third episode.
As usual, the BBC costume and set designers excellently execute the look of the era. A delightful artistic choice is the teal colour palette resonating in all the 1960s scenes, from Mrs Wilson’s dresses to the train carriages, which contrasts with the warmer scenes of the past.
Mrs Wilson is filled with BBC mini-series staples such as Keeley Hawes and Fiona Shaw. The latter’s Coleman, a bitter member of the secret service, is a brilliantly humorous edition to the mini-series, chain-smoking her way through every scene.
However, as usually transpires, the viewer finds themselves somewhat misled after googling the accuracy of the show. The final episode poignantly ends with a photograph of the real extended Wilson family in the modern day. However, the real-life Mrs Wilson underwent less discoveries than her on-screen counterpart.
Though fitting with the source material, the Catholicism arc feels out of place in the adaptation. As a viewer, it is tricky to share in Mrs Wilson’s solace from conversion since Alec’s faith catalyses issues such as his refusal to divorce.
The drama ends with a stretched-out epilogue. After the fast-paced tension of the previous two episodes, the nunnery scenes feel slightly bloated. A one-scene conclusion would have worked as well, sustaining the audience’s interest whilst neatly conveying Mrs Wilson’s forgiveness.
However, some artistic choices work better in the drama. For instance, Anupam Kher’s character of Shahbaz Karim was created to convey Alec’s experience in India more clearly. As the BBC has been criticised before for under-representation, multiple side characters are portrayed by people of colour. This creates a more realistic portrayal of England in the 1960s.
In keeping with the trend, the third episode’s credits summarise the true story to the present day. Leaving on the note that even in 2018, Alec Wilson’s employment details for the Foreign Office remain confidential, we are left with more questions than answers. As BBC mini-series achieve time and time again, Mrs Wilson will offer a debate for numerous Christmas dinners.
Not only is Mrs Wilson a sensationally shocking mini-series, the BBC grips the viewers by reminding them that what they’re watching is only partly fiction.