Mrs. Wilson

 –Review by Teri Hyrkas

Mrs. Wilson is a PBS Masterpiece three-part mini-series which aired during the early spring of this year. Mrs. Wilson (scriptwriter Anna Symon) is based on the true story of Alison McKelvie Wilson’s life of love, duplicity and betrayal in Britain during and after World War II. This production of Mrs. Wilson boasts an astonishing bit of casting: the main character is portrayed by Ruth Wilson, Mrs. Alison McKelvie Wilson’s granddaughter.

The story takes place primarily in London and opens in the 1960’s with the death of Alexander Wilson (played by Iain Glen), Ruth’s husband of twenty years. Alec has collapsed at their home in Ealing, a district of west London. When Alison realizes Alec is dead, she contacts their parish priest, Father Timothy, who comes to the house to comfort Alison and her son. Soon we see gifts of food arrive at the home from those who wish to pay their respects. One visitor who calls at the front door gives Allison a tremendous shock when she does not offer her sympathy but announces that her name is Mrs. Gladys Wilson, Alec’s wife. She says to Alison, “You must be the housekeeper.”  Alison, insulted and incredulous, informs the woman it is she, Alison, who is Alec’s wife,  that Gladys is delusional, and she shuts the door in Gladys’ face. Alison then conjures up a story about “a horrible cousin” when her son asks who had come to the door.

Thus begins this tale of subterfuge, confusion, pursuit and discovery. Alison, who resists all suggestions of Alec’s unfaithfulness, is determined to search for proof that she was Alec’s real wife, that he loved her and their sons and had told her the truth about his work in British intelligence.

The time frame for the movie is primarily the 1940’s into the1960’s in England, but a portion of the story is placed in the late 1930’s in India. Exceptionally skillful video editing and flashbacks braid the time elements in the film seamlessly so that the viewer is almost unaware of the shift from one time period to another and one country to another. There are color cues in the film which help to sort the various locations and decades: Blue is the predominant color of 1960’s, England; tropical colors and Indian music accompany the 1930’s India segments; sepia tones match the national and personal hardships the English encountered in the war years of the 1940’s. These color and film editing techniques help to keep the storyline from getting unmanageably tangled and add a pervasive element of semiotic beauty to the film.

Semiotics plays a big part in this movie. There are a couple of specific touchstones throughout the film, one of which is the typewriter: The typewriter shows up in scenes of the typing pool at the British Intelligence Agency is where Alison first meets and works for Alec; Alec is a novelist who works from a specific typewriter; Alison uses her typewriter as a means to deceive others as she attempts to validate her marriage to Alec; finally, Alison, uses a typewriter to record the true story of her life which she has kept hidden from her children and grandchildren.

Another important visual cue in Mrs. Wilson is Alec’s rosary. Early in their relationship, Alison, who early on described herself as areligious, awakes to see Alec sitting alone praying the rosary. “You pray every day?” she asks him. Alec responds, “In these uncertain times, a man needs faith.” The rosary appears many times during the film. One occurrence is during a time of unendurable stress for Alison, when she sees herself as having been completely duped by Alec. As she cries out in her grief, she tears Alec’s rosary apart. Father Timothy, who comes upon Alison in her grief, speaks with her. “You think God has abandoned you.” Allison replies, “He offers you hope so you lower your guard and he disappears.” The priest replies, “Search for a chink of light. It will come. And when it does, open yourself up and let God in.” Toward the end of the movie, in a scene that could be straight out of a Flannery O’Connor short story, Alison has an emotionally traumatic, humiliating moment in which she does see light beyond her pain.

Alexander Joseph Patrick Wilson, (10/24/1893-4/4/1963), even as he lived his multiple hidden lives as an espionage agent and bigamist, was a prolific author who published three academic books and twenty-four novels. Near the close of the series, there is a scene in which Alison Wilson seeks out a woman who had tended to Alec after his return from the battle of El-Alamein. The matron remembered that Alec was very young, a teenager, and he was not making much progress under their care until someone brought him a typewriter. He then started typing and his health began to improve. Alec told one of his caregivers that the typewriter helped him handle his fear by allowing him to make up stories about the war.

The matron then asked Alison, “Did he carry on with the fiction?”

Alison answered, “To the very end.”

The movie Mrs. Wilson is a psychological thriller that would be worthwhile watching if it were fiction, but because it is a true story it bears a more significant message, one that goes beyond the adage that fact is stranger than fiction. Mrs. Wilson is a movie that generates frightening questions: Can we ever truly know another person? What do we do when our most trusted relationships collapse or disappear? How can we trust, much less love, those who lie to us continuously? Mrs. Wilson was broadcast in the US during Lent. It was an especially meaningful production to watch and discuss with friends during that season of introspection and repentance.

The DVD of Mrs. Wilson is available for purchase from various online vendors. It also can be viewed online through PBS Passport, a member benefit of participating PBS stations.