'Mrs. Wilson' Review: PBS Series Asks, How Well Do We Know The People We Love? Ruth Wilson stars in the PBS drama based on the story of her own grandmother, who discovered, after 22 years of marriage, that her spy-turned-author husband may have been married to someone else.
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'Mrs. Wilson' Asks: Just How Well Do We Know The People We Love?

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'Mrs. Wilson' Asks: Just How Well Do We Know The People We Love?

Review

TV Reviews

'Mrs. Wilson' Asks: Just How Well Do We Know The People We Love?

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the new TV series "Mrs. Wilson," the British actress Ruth Wilson stars in the true story of her own grandmother, who discovered that her marriage wasn't what she thought it was. The first two episodes premiere on PBS' Masterpiece Sunday night. And our critic-at-large John Powers says you may think you know where the show is heading, but you don't.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: It's a commonplace that we never really know other people, not even those we love. This idea gets pushed to the limit in "Mrs. Wilson," a new three-part drama from PBS' Masterpiece starring the electric English actress Ruth Wilson, who you may know from "Luther" and "The Affair." Based on the bizarre true story of her grandparents, "Mrs. Wilson" is about a woman who discovers that she didn't know what she didn't know about her husband.

The story begins in 1963 when Alison Wilson - that's Ruth Wilson playing her own grandmother - has been married for 22 years to the older Alec, a novelist and ex-MI6 agent. He's played by Iain Glen, best known as the Khaleesi-adoring Jorah Mormont on "Game Of Thrones." When Alec suddenly drops dead of a heart attack, the shocked Alison throws herself into consoling their two sons.

But as she makes the funeral preparations, she gets an even bigger shock. A gray-haired woman turns up at the front door, claiming to be a Mrs. Gladys Wilson, Alec's widow. Alison tells her to beat it, but thunderstruck, she sets about disproving the woman's claims. That turns out to be harder than expected.

And so as Alison digs deeper into Alec's life, the show itself cuts back and forth between her investigations and flashbacks to the couple's past, from their romance while working for British intelligence during World War II through the ups and downs of their marital life. In the process, Alison discovers that even by the slippery standards of a professional spy, Alec's (ph) identity was profoundly elusive.

Here, early on, Alison goes to meet Alec's hard-smoking handler at MI6 - played with stonewalling wryness by Fiona Shaw - to find out the truth about Gladys Wilson.

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RUTH WILSON: (As Alison Wilson) We had a visitor last night, Alec's ex-wife. She thinks they're still married. I couldn't find the divorce papers anywhere. I was just hoping you might have a copy. I thought you might have some sort of file on Alec.

FIONA SHAW: (As Coleman) Nothing that can be shared with you.

WILSON: (As Alison Wilson) You must have vetted him before he joined the service.

SHAW: (As Coleman) Of course.

WILSON: (As Alison Wilson) So you looked into who he was.

SHAW: (As Coleman) Right up. Top-floor family, married.

WILSON: (As Alison Wilson) And then divorced.

SHAW: (As Coleman) Allie (ph) was extremely important to us. There were so few men fluent in Arabic at the time.

WILSON: (As Alison Wilson) He showed me his divorce papers.

SHAW: (As Coleman) He was an intelligence agent. It wouldn't have been difficult for him to forge a couple of documents.

WILSON: (As Alison Wilson) Oh, no. Alec wouldn't lie to me, not like that.

POWERS: Oh, Alison, you poor dear. Because the great pleasure of "Mrs. Wilson" is that we're as surprised as Alison by each new revelation, I'll simply say that the story keeps us guessing. Who's the mysterious woman played by "Bodyguard's" sexy prime minister, Keeley Hawes? Who's lurking at Alec's funeral?

Can we trust the Indian intelligence officer, played by Anupam Kher, when he claims to have been Alec's handler back in the Raj? And given Alison's lack of religious belief, why does the silver-haired priest, Father Timothy - that's Ian McElhinney - keep turning up?

Seeking the truth, Alison grows crazier and more desperate, a turn that plays right into Wilson's wheelhouse as an actress. With her large mouth and ferocious gaze, she was born for characters who revel in emotional extremes, like her freewheeling serial killer in "Luther." In fact, Wilson is so good that director Richard Laxton makes the mistake filmmakers once made with Meryl Streep. He lets his camera linger on her after she's already delivered the necessary emotion, trying to wring out extra drops of her gift.

This is one reason the whole show feels a few minutes too long, that enduring problem of today's TV. And that's not the only flaw. Like so many period series, "Mrs. Wilson" falls in love with its production design, which is too spot-on to be true. If Alison stops on a street, she's going to be standing by a poster emblematic of the year we're in.

Yet despite such quibbles, "Mrs. Wilson" has such a strong and surprising story that I whooshed right through it toward its unexpected end. Even as Alison learns - or thinks she learns - about her husband's multifarious past, the Official Secrets Act prevents absolute confirmation. The show itself carries us in a direction I never would have dreamed of at the beginning.

Throughout the series, Alison is keen to believe that Alec truly was the good man she thought she knew. But her story has implications beyond her particular circumstances. In the end, "Mrs. Wilson" is about how we cope with the unknowability of other people and, by extension, the ultimate unknowability of life. Do we simply ignore such uncertainty, let ourselves be devoured by it? Or do we, like Alison, search for some way to have faith?

GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new PBS Masterpiece series "Mrs. Wilson," which begins Sunday night.

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GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with comic John Mulaney, a former writer on "Saturday Night Live" who returned to host twice in the past year, or with Natasha Lyonne, who co-created and stars in the Netflix series "Russian Doll," or with J.M. Berger, who studies extremist groups like white nationalists, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

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