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Television review

In ‘Mrs. Wilson,’ unraveling a life lived as a lie

Ruth Wilson portrays her grandmother in “Mrs. Wilson.”
Ruth Wilson portrays her grandmother in “Mrs. Wilson.”(Steffan Hill/BBC/©WP Films Ltd.)

I hate to have fun at the expense of others, but “Mrs. Wilson,” a new “Masterpiece” miniseries about marital deceit, is all kinds of addictive. The true story, based on the life of actress Ruth Wilson’s grandmother, Alison Wilson, is compellingly dark and twisty, as Alison discovers just after her husband’s death that he was in fact a bigamist. Ruth Wilson, who executive-produced the three-parter, stars as her own grandmother.

It all starts with the 1963 death by heart attack of Alexander Wilson. Alison has no inkling of her husband’s duplicity, at least consciously, until the doorbell rings shortly after he dies and a strange woman says to her, “You must be his landlady.” Alison is disturbed by the encounter and shoos the woman away, but we can see her just beginning to sense that her husband of two decades may have secrets. Actually, she knows there are secrets; he was an MI6 spy, often away on stealth missions for extended periods. But she trusted him; he was divorced shortly before they married, he showed her the paperwork to prove it, and he clearly loved her.

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The action toggles back and forth — sometimes powerfully — between the time after Alex’s death, as Alison begins to look into the mystery, and the early 1940s when Alex and Alison meet and begin their relationship. The 1940s material is beautifully done, as the violent chaos of World War II enables Alex’s deceptions. With the Blitz bombings and destruction in London, he is more able to move his wives and children around like game pieces, keeping them safely apart. When you hear about such a case of duplicity, you wonder about the mechanics of it all. One of the attractions of “Mrs. Wilson,” whose first two episodes premiere on Sunday at 9 p.m., is the way it shows us, to some extent, how Alex was able to pull it off.

The acting is a major attraction, too. Alex is a perfect role for Iain Glen, who plays Jorah Mormont in “Game of Thrones.” He helps us see that a person can be both a loving family man and dreadfully, tragically flawed. If Glen telegraphed evil to us in any way, the whole story would come off more like a Lifetime production. Instead, his Alex is enigmatic but charming and, it seems, living in the moment. Ruth Wilson, too, is excellent, as she inhabits the gray areas of the situation — didn’t she know at some deep level? Her Alison is both grasping at the special memories she has of Alex, and hating him for his lies. She’s a polite lady, but her anger reaches a tipping point on occasion, and Wilson makes those moments count. Alison is also committed to protecting their two sons from learning the truth, which was considered noble in the 1960s, perhaps; less so now.

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MASTERPIECE: MRS. WILSON

Starring: Ruth Wilson, Iain Glen, Fiona Shaw, Keeley Hawes, Patrick Kennedy, Otto Farrant, Calam Lynch. On: WGBH-2, two episodes air March 31 at 9 p.m.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.