This review contains spoilers.
The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal, wrote John Le Carré in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Could the same be said for wives?
The unlikely story of author and rumoured British intelligence agent Alexander Wilson has only fully come to light for his family in the last decade or so. Or more accurately, for his families plural, one of which includes actor Ruth Wilson, here playing her own paternal grandmother Alison.
The revelations that tumbled from the decades following ‘Alec’ Wilson’s death are scandalous stuff. A prolific author of mystery novels, the stories “just kind of fell out of him,” explains Alison in episode one. Not only stories, but lies, forged documents, and entire fictions he used in order to live multiple lives. Goodness, you think. What kind of sociopath must he have been?
A very popular one, at least according to episode one. And kind, to judge by Alison’s birthday present of a fountain pen—a thoughtful gift from an established author to a would-be writer. Wilson’s two sons with Alison, adored him, as did his son from first wife Gladys. A patriot who “liked everybody”, was well-liked in return by neighbours (“He was such a lovely man,” says one, proffering a sympathy pie) and work colleagues, he’s made likeable here by actor Iain Glen, who plays him with gentle warmth.
The script, by Indian Summers’ Anna Symon, also seems fond of Wilson. The little we see of him in episode one shows him to be free of the qualities—arrogance or cruelty—you’d imagine would be key to leading a bigamist’s life. (“I just sit at my typewriter and make things up,” he says modestly about his publishing success.) That he could endear multiple women to him and make them believe his lies is entirely plausible.
The setting helps of course. Mrs Wilson’s first episode is told between two timelines, one in the 1960s after Alec’s death and one in the 1940s during their courtship and the early years of their marriage. The “uncertain times” of WWII in combination with the backdrop of MI6, where Alison meets Major Wilson while she’s working as a typist, make fertile ground for subterfuge. Signing the Official Secrets Act (Fiona Shaw is a pleasant sight here, perhaps playing the grandmother of her MI6 character in Killing Eve?) must make the mind more receptive to elliptical lives and compartmentalising the truth.
If it isn’t a wonder that Alison didn’t suspect a thing, then her buttoned-up reaction to the incredible news is harder to swallow. Ruth Wilson keeps such a British stiff upper lip throughout Alison’s many ordeals that it’s hard to feel the shock entering her system. She keeps it locked down, only letting her shattered sense of the life she led out in brief bursts of anger—slapping her son for making a blue joke about having “a girl in every port,” or in silent realisations—as she sees Alec’s familiar typewriter set-up on his desk in Southsea and understands that she only shared a part of his life.
The first hour, directed by Richard Laxton (Mum, River), belongs to Alison. We watch her subjected to a series of trials—her husband’s death, the arrival of another woman calling herself his wife, the realisation that her own marriage wasn’t legal, and the ordeal of the (two) funerals. Ruth Wilson shoulders it all, holding the screen as both the girlish young secretary and the betrayed matriarch.
As Alison unpicks Alec’s lies, she tells her own. The first before she has any idea about her husband’s other identity as she improvises his last words as a comfort to her younger son, then hides his wallet from the undertaker. As the revelations begin to arrive, she protects both sons from their father’s betrayal with yet more invention. The woman who knocked at the door was their dad’s estranged cousin. He’s being buried in Southsea because it was his wish to be near the coast. Or next to his sister’s grave, she tells the funeral director. All of it is done to insulate her boys from the truth, making the expediency of lies one theme of this drama.
It’s a deliberate, slow and thoughtful hour of domestic mystery, presented unshowily against the backdrop of a nation first at war, then at peace. The more we learn about Alexander Wilson, the more questions arrive: who was the man from the hospital at his funeral? What was the real reason he went ‘undercover’ in 1942? Who is Dorothy, and what does she have to do with the fact that Keeley Hawes in a beret has been haunting Alison and Alec for years? And finally, just how many titular Mrs Wilsons are we going to meet?
Mrs Wilson continues next Tuesday the 4th of December at 9pm on BBC One.