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The Terrifying Enchantment of Ruth Wilson

The ‘Luther’ and ‘His Dark Materials’ star makes being bad look incredible.
Ruth Wilson Luther Bbc
By  · Published on December 24th, 2020

Welcome to Filmographies, a biweekly column for completists. Every edition brings a working actor’s resumé into focus as we learn about what makes them so compelling. In this entry, we spotlight the filmography of Ruth Wilson.

Ruth Wilson possesses one of the most stunning faces in the entertainment industry. With a visage that effortlessly oscillates swiftly between startlingly innocent and beguilingly mischievous, the British actress has curated a film and television career that banks precisely on these traits to deliver thoroughly affecting dramatic performances.

Wilson’s initial career in the late aughts comprised merely a couple of minor ventures before a more substantial breakout in Jane Eyre. In her first TV credit, Wilson starred in a pretty radical project — at least, considering the rest of her filmography to come.

Suburban Shootout (2006-2007)

The British situational-comedy Suburban Shootout is a satirical take on wealthy white English countryside suburbia. The protagonists — the almost annoyingly regular Hazeldine family — move to the small town of Little Stempington from the bustling London city streets to embrace the quiet life. Little do they know that a feud exists between two groups of middle-aged women with easy access to excessive amounts of artillery.

Wilson factors in as Jewel Diamond, the voracious daughter of one of the gang leaders. This teenager’s fluorescent makeup, bedazzled outfits, and perpetually exaggerated bedroom eyes say it all — to quote Jewel herself, “SAFE IS BORING!”

Wilson particularly stands out opposite a ridiculously innocent pre-Marvel Tom Hiddleston, who plays her befuddled love interest, as well as a gleefully diabolical Anna Chancellor who portrays her mother. The actress is the most fun to watch in the brief moments when Jewel reveals slivers of her calculating nature, making the character a decided foe to the adults of Little Stempington in her own right. That the role is small and the show runs low on wit on many occasions hardly matters. Wilson’s unbridled and effervescent approach to Jewel is unforgettable.

Jane Eyre (2006)

To say that the disparities between Suburban Shootout and the 2006 serial adaptation of the famed Charlotte Brontë novel are stark would be a severe understatement. Jane Eyre, produced as four hour-long episodes on the BBC, is one of the most accessible takes on the Victorian classic purely because of Wilson’s emphatic performance as the title character.

Here, we follow the tragic life of the eponymous orphan Jane. As a child, she first suffers intense abuse from her adoptive family before being sent to train as a governess at the equally harsh Lowood Hall. Years later, the intelligent and quietly spirited Jane finds employment at the enigmatic Thornton Hall, a post which forces her to confront ghosts of the past.

The miniseries leans into the horror-tinged elements of Brontë’s book, and there is hardly anyone more capable of embodying multifaceted hauntedness than Wilson. Jane’s characteristic plainness impeccably translates through the actress’s quiet reserve. Her impression of the quintessential outcast heroine is unassuming and wholly natural without lacking in charisma and quirk.

Furthermore, Wilson showcases perfect chemistry with the series’ iteration of Edward Rochester (Toby Stephens). Given that Jane Eyre frequently oscillates between more static, languid conversational scenes and depictions of intense emotional turmoil, she does so by making such dramatic differences go virtually unnoticed. Wilson expresses such sound inner resolve while contending with her character’s fragility as she struggles with the concept of love in all of its forms. The audience has no choice but to feel every palpable shift in Jane’s evolving persona.

Capturing Mary (2007)

Strength is such a mysterious, malleable quality in Wilson’s filmography. Her roles in the connected TV movies of Stephen Poliakoff aptly demonstrate this. Of the three that first aired on the BBC in November 2007, she appears in Capturing Mary and A Real Summer.

Capturing Mary is a drama-thriller depicting the sordid secrets in 1950s high society. Ex-journalist and socialite Mary Gilbert (Maggie Smith) is the film’s mouthpiece, recounting her unsettling experiences with a shadowy social climber, Greville White (David Walliams). Wilson only appears in flashback sequences as a younger version of Mary. Granted, she rarely gains full control over the narrative. However, Wilson lends relatability and quiet intensity to this independent, liberally-minded woman, making a vague, meandering movie much more comprehensible.

A Real Summer (2007)

In contrast, A Real Summer puts Mary front and center, allowing Wilson to be the only actor in the entire film. The story takes place within Capturing Mary‘s timeline, detailing a separate encounter that markedly touches the character. Speaking directly to the camera for much of this forty-five-minute TV play, Wilson goes in-depth into Mary’s adventures as a film columnist with exuberance and whimsy.

The actress’s voice takes on a more clipped tone as she portrays Mary but then adopts an airier timber when retelling of meetings with “Felicity” — an aristocratic woman who feels like a fish out of water. Further still, Wilson switches gears again midway through the movie when “Felicity” contacts Mary herself, divulging her real identity — Geraldine — and a whole new persona for the actress to tackle.

This makes A Real Summer such a treat for Wilson fans. Despite Mary’s attempts to make a caricature of someone else, Wilson agilely creates two other distinct personalities that speak more poignantly to the heart of the Poliakoff films: that the roles women occupy in historically male-dominated spaces can be outright shackling.

The Doctor Who Hears Voices (2008)

Mining empathy from unusual situations and characters is a large part of Wilson’s acting process. Unfortunately, not all of her projects land due to their confusing storylines. The Doctor Who Hears Voices, a docudrama centered on controversial clinical psychologist Rufus May, sadly demonstrates this. 

Wilson plays the only fictional role in the documentary, starring as a dramatized version of one of Dr. May’s real-life patients. The movie often establishes the character “in conversation” with May, re-enacting specific interactions with purported accuracy.

While Wilson has a knack for portraying internalized unrest, her part in The Doctor Who Hears Voices is ultimately unnecessary. It feels well-intentioned, but knowing that it is just a performance of someone else’s severely stigmatized mental health condition makes the documentary uncanny and alienating.

Small Island (2009)

Wilson’s best projects rest on her nuanced treatment of archetypal narratives, as evidenced by the TV adaptation of Small Island. Based on Andrea Levy’s 2004 novel of the same name, the two-part miniseries centers on two women living in the shadow of World War II. There’s Hortense, Naomie Harris’s aspiring teacher from Jamaica, and Queenie, Wilson’s open-minded, free-spirited dreamer from Northern England. They cross paths as they make for the heart of London, where they hope to chase desires of adventure, independence, and self-sufficiency.

Tenacious as these women are, themes of race, class, and sex intersect, and this greatly affects their resolve. For Queenie, her fear of returning to the dire conditions of her working-class background forces her into a marriage with a conservative bank clerk. She eventually grows resentful of the suffocating nature of this union. Moreover, Queenie is a white woman, but her close relationships with ostracized immigrants present another noticeable tension in her narrative arc.

Regardless of Queenie’s good intentions throughout Small Island, Wilson taps so earnestly into her imperfections that they become the character’s most compelling quality. It’s hard not to feel sorry for her plight. However, her views about escapism are – on some level – tied to an exoticized perspective of those unlike herself. This stance encourages her to act on basal instinct, entangling her in inevitable heartbreak and loss in consequence. Thanks to Wilson, Queenie practically leaps off our screens and becomes a person we disagree with yet fundamentally understand.

The Prisoner (2009)

The Prisoner concerns itself with breaking down the barriers of the psyche – both in terms of collective ideology and personal belief. In this six-part reimagining of the 1960s TV show, Jim Caviezel’s protagonist stumbles upon a utopia-like Village where inhabitants are identified by numbers rather than names. As all manner of escape proves futile for him, memories of a past life begin to uproot this picturesque community.

Wilson, bearing the moniker 313, is a doctor at the compound. Her prim, demure countenance and quiet, contemplative demeanor don’t preclude the fact that she harbors certain haunting proclivities that she is terrified to acknowledge. But the more she takes an interest in 6, the more his sudden arrival forcefully disrupts the tranquility of life in the Village. His ramblings about a world outside the Village precipitates the discovery of 313’s personal conflicts about the vague reality she has always known.

The Prisoner, which seems like the ideal show for an actress as sensitive as Wilson, frustratingly falls short. To be fair, the actress does get to delve into the thorny depths of trauma, resurfacing with a degree of raw, terrifying innocence. But the series’ grander sci-fi vision never serves to complement Wilson’s character work. In the end, she is left stranded in hopes of drawing resonance from the show’s perplexing scripts.

Luther (2010 – 2019)

Thankfully, Wilson gets to take the reins in the thrilling, character-driven crime drama Luther. The British TV series, which lasted five seasons and could next be up for a film follow-up, stars Idris Elba, the eponymous Detective Chief Inspector, whose routinely unorthodox policing methods lead to increasingly life-threatening moral predicaments. Elba dominates the screen as the show’s leading man, but it is Wilson’s recurring antagonist, Alice Morgan, who truly makes the series stand out.

After all, it is through Luther and his dangerous antics that we become acquainted with the steely Alice’s weaknesses and desires. First appearing in the pilot as the “sole survivor” of a double-homicide that leaves her parents dead in the family home, Alice’s odd, detached behavior paints her as a suspect in the case. Despite her relishing in her heinous crime, Luther cannot definitively prove that she did the deed. Eventually, Alice nurses an obsession for him that he reluctantly reciprocates.

Luther’s monster-of-the-week format includes interconnected plot twists that often pushes emotional extremes. However, Alice’s anarchic tendencies add humor and mischievous personality to an otherwise exhaustingly bleak show. Watching Wilson unspool all of Alice’s eccentricities while keeping her unpredictability at bay is unnervingly delightful. The character sticks to her core ethos of honesty and pragmatism throughout, leaving devastation in her menacing wake. It is no wonder that next to Jane EyreLuther is one of Wilson’s claims to fame that would propel her career forward.

Anna Karenina (2012)

Joe Wright’s lofty big-screen adaptation of Anna Karenina is one of Wilson’s most significant mainstream films. The sweeping Leo Tolstoy-based epic, which also holds the milestone as the actress’ first feature ever, employs an array of both famous and fresh faces in dramatic cinema.

The extensive web of interconnected relationships in Anna Karenina allows its antiheroine of the same name (played by Keira Knightley) to frequently interact with a cast of characters that influence her passionate decisions made in the name of love and desire. Wilson’s simpering Princess Betsy Tverskaya is a couple of degrees of separation away from Anna herself, being the wealthy cousin of Anna’s lover, Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). 

Made up to look notably doll-like with her intensely pale bleached eyebrows and ornate blonde wig, Betsy’s posh, self-serious nature – complete with a high-pitched, fluttery tone of voice – provides a decent amount of levity to the film. Yet, as a major representative element of Russian high society, Betsy upholds the restrictive standards that Anna feels trapped by. Unfortunately, the character suffers overall as Anna Karenina’s surface-level charms don’t cut deep enough for Wilson’s prowess.

Locke (2013)

Some of Wilson’s film ventures during the first half of the 2010s endure a similar fate. In 2013, her mainstream opportunities included Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger and John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks. Alas, when Wilson does turn up in the former, her character’s passivity in the grand scheme of its story is disappointing. Meanwhile, despite the latter taking advantage of her silent acting chops, she is woefully snatched from the screen without much backstory of her own.

Steven Knight’s considerably smaller film Locke actually puts its limited premise to full use. The movie tracks a family man named Ivan (Tom Hardy) whose life uncontrollably crumbles around him on a solitary cross-country commute. Wilson plays Ivan’s wife, Katrina, who finds out via phone that he once had an affair with a colleague. Said co-worker is now having Ivan’s child. To make matters worse, he chooses to drive for hours from Birmingham to London to be present for the childbirth instead of returning to Katrina and their two sons.

Although Locke seems like Hardy’s solo acting exercise, Wilson and the other actors in the film bear the hefty task of humanizing voices. Over the phone, Wilson and Hardy are combatant as Katrina implores Ivan to reject his so-called rationality — that is, coldness — and display some compassion for the deep hurt he has caused her. On the flip side, she is blinded by rage and hardly the most gracious figure herself, which makes her many meltdowns believable, heart-wrenching, and real. Wilson specifically adds shades of grey to the film’s moral quandaries, demanding our sympathy for her plight in a visceral, reflexive way. 

The Affair (2014-2019)

In Showtime’s five-season prestige drama The Affair, Wilson portrays Alison, a young woman whose extramarital indiscretions set off a chain of events that simultaneously unearth buried trauma and inflict pain anew. The show not only covers Alison’s perspective alongside those of a selection of other main characters’ but also studies the generational consequences of bad decisions.

The Arrair’s frequent use of unreliable narration permits its actors to devise multiple versions of their characters, with Wilson being no exception. To view Alison through her own lens, her forbidden beau’s, as well as the family members and wider community hurt by their illicit liaison, is to watch Wilson create a bountiful selection of personalities that all feel equally mesmerizing and authentic. Magic happens when we see where these identities meet in the middle to get some semblance of truth from these characters.

Regrettably, the fact that The Affair became wrought with allegations of workplace toxicity after Wilson’s particularly brutal exit from the series does affect my impression of it. The Affair is arguably one of the biggest landmark moments in Wilson’s career. Her work on the series earned her a Golden Globe win among other accolade nominations. Seeing as the claims were purportedly related to the actress’s on-set experiences, it’s impossible to ignore the additional layer of discomfort that shrouds the show, especially considering its frequently violent, foreboding, and sexually charged plot points. Thus, the show remains a tough project to discuss, let alone fully celebrate.

Suite Française (2015)

During her tenure on The Affair, Wilson continued bulking up her film résumé. Among the selection, her supporting role in the historical romantic drama Suite Française is most reminiscent of her past work. Wilson plays Madeleine, a friend of Michelle Williams’ leading lady in this World War II-era movie. 

Madeleine and her farmer husband (a prickly Sam Riley) live in abject poverty, doing everything they can to make ends meet for their small family. Yet, in keeping with the tradition of Wilson’s previous characters, Madeleine resists the pity of their little French village. Her keen observational qualities imbue her with a sense of stoicism that strengthens her agency despite her terrifying circumstances. Madeleine is thoroughly loyal to her home, her family, and her friends, making her a welcome grounding center of Suite Française.

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016)

Wilson’s examinations of the human condition have also traversed more experimental genre territory – some of it to considerable effect. A film such as John Cameron Mitchell’s sci-fi romantic-comedy How to Talk to Girls at Parties, which includes Wilson in a minuscule but distinctly comedic role, could have marked a pleasant return to some lighter fare for her. Instead, the movie itself winds up being too soulless to be entertaining, nor does it adequately capture its anti-conformist message.

In contrast, Osgood Perkins’ gothic horror film I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is a stirring modern take on the classic haunted house trope. Whether Wilson shares the filmic space with other actors, the project is perfectly suitable for her commanding screen presence.

Perkins’ movie tells a disquieting tale about death and legacy. Wilson’s character, Lily, is a hospice nurse sent to care for an acclaimed, ailing horror author named Iris Blum. Lily is good of heart and overall temperament, but she startles easily and self-professes a fear for all things that go bump in the night.

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House blurs the distinction between fiction and reality by warping temporal space and perspective with eerie cinematic precision. Wilson is our sole vulnerable guide throughout this heady experience. She often appears in scenes alone, peering wide-eyed down corridors and occasionally even talking to herself. Wilson’s breadth of emotional availability keeps us firmly in the moment to soak up the dread and menace washing over Iris’ home. As the film’s disturbing narrative gnaws away at Lily – shattering her resolve both literally and figuratively – it overwhelms us as viewers, too.

Dark River (2017)

Few of Wilson’s works are more overwhelmingly harrowing than Dark River. The British drama directed by Clio Barnard circles the topic of generational trauma within a broken family. Wilson fans would be right to expect a movie like this to pop up in her filmography now and then. At this point, we are used to the austere nature of her leading ladies. However, the extent to which the actress owns her screentime and takes control of Dark River makes the film extra satisfying.

Every second of the movie’s eighty-nine-minute running time spells grimness. Wilson is Alice, a hardy farmhand who suddenly returns home to claim her inheritance – her late father’s tenancy. Her estranged brother, Joe (Mark Stanley), disputes her right to the family property, though. Alice wants the best for their farm, which has been neglected for years. Sadly, deeply-rooted anguish stemming from incidences of abuse at the hands of their father keeps them at loggerheads with one another.

Given the siblings’ uncommunicable relationship, much more has to be said without words in Dark River. The farm itself becomes a centerpiece for Alice and Joe to air their grievances. In the case of the former, Wilson takes on the demanding physicality of the role with stride. Alice’s tangible goals for the farm directly contend with the suffocating repression of her trauma – in gaining control of the land, she may begin to heal. Wilson marinates the character in her signature subtlety, deftly tapping into Alice’s tender pressure points to successfully produce her tricky emotional pitch.

Mrs. Wilson (2018)

In Wilson’s first serial project since The Affair, she returns to the small screen as the star of a story that digs deep into her own family history. Mrs. Wilson, which the actress executive produced, is a historical thriller that draws from the fallout of the escapades of Wilson’s real-life paternal grandfather, the novelist and former spy Alexander “Alec” Wilson.

The show sees Wilson playing her actual grandmother, Alison. After being happily married to Alec (Iain Glen) for twenty-two years and raising two sons together, she suddenly finds her husband dead from a heart attack. The loss severely debilitates Alison. Her distress only compounds after she unveils shocking secrets regarding her husband’s double-life as a former MI6 agent. While alive, Alec was polygamously wedded to four different women, including Alison. Now, they all have some stake in his memory and legacy. Alison is left desperately questioning if she ever knew her husband at all.

Superficially, Alison nicely joins the ranks of past Wilson heroines who share strong-minded, go-getting, and independent sensibilities. Her ceaseless dependency on the tenet of truth additionally recalls someone like Alice from Luther. Of course, Mrs. Wilson presents this commitment to honesty more realistically, opting to have Alison both marred and vindicated by its swiftly changing forms. As a woman who has always taken pride in her tangible achievements, she cannot bear to lose the fond memories of her life with Alec.

This revelation leads Alison to do brash and unseemly things to preserve her version of the truth. Wilson carefully modulates in her weighty performance to express the soul-crushing reality that her character must accept. Ultimately, Mrs. Wilson slowly but surely humanizes Alison’s complicated journey with love, painting an empowering, unconventional vision of women’s agency.

The Little Stranger (2018)

The Lenny Abrahamson period drama The Little Stranger – adapted from a Sarah Waters ghost story – lets Wilson double down on her penchant for doom and gloom. Set in the 1940s as the specter of World War II lingers over England, the film follows Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a humble country doctor who crosses paths with the reclusive Ayres family, owners and inhabitants of the shabby manor Hundreds Hall.

Wilson fills the shoes of Caroline, the sole surviving daughter of the current Ayres matriarch (Charlotte Rampling). Caroline — brainy yet brusque — serves as the primary caretaker of her brother Roderick (Will Poulter), a Royal Air Force veteran who was severely scarred in battle.

The Little Stranger isn’t all bad. The film boasts appropriately dire gothic aesthetics, themes, and powerful visuals necessary to evoke the narrative’s sinister spectral qualities. It’s then a shame that it frustratingly lacks the emotional gravitas that a historical site like the Ayres home – with all of its untold secrets – needs.

To Wilson’s immense credit, her Caroline isn’t flatly melancholic. Life in the Ayres mansion inspires a defeatist attitude in her, but when she clings to her confusing connection with Faraday, a more personable, witty version of herself emerges. Opposite both the muted despair of the movie and Gleeson’s imperturbable visage as Faraday, Wilson is a vibrant breath of fresh air.

His Dark Materials (2019-present)

Wilson’s casting in the BBC’s rich, gripping episodic version of His Dark Materials is nothing short of inspired. The series is a personal favorite adaptation of the famed Philip Pullman’s fantasy novels of the same name, even though this young-adult classic has already been translated across other media.

His Dark Materials centers on Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), a ferocious and impulsive young orphan whose predestined fate could change the course of the world as she knows it. The Earth that she resides in is but one iteration of multiple worlds across a multiverse tethered together by Dust. Upon discovering her ability to manipulate this metaphysical substance, Lyra becomes the center of various conflicts involving armed bears, witches, and an autocratic Magisterium.

We first meet Wilson’s character, the explorer Mrs. Coulter, in affiliation to the latter religious organization. Regal, worldly, and beautiful, her charm and cleverness afford her power and autonomy that Lyra at first finds glamorous. Before long, the girl finds out that Mrs. Coulter’s cool-headed facade gives way to cruelty and selfishness. By then, Mrs. Coulter’s true ties to Lyra reveal themselves – she is not only the child’s mother but one of her biggest foes.

One of the best things about His Dark Materials is that it prioritizes its characters and their relationships. Pullman’s novels provide the perfect backdrop, description, and set-up for these iconic figures to take form. To then see characters such as Mrs. Coulter express more complex feelings compared to her book counterpart only enhances our experience of the series’ abundant lore. Wilson goes feral in her display of diabolical ruthlessness on the show, putting a great scream to even better use. Yet, we also witness her misguided attempts to show her daughter love. This is textbook sympathetic villainy, and Wilson captures it superbly.

As evidenced by her character experimentations over the years, Wilson takes “fearless” and “chameleonic” to a level that eschews self-consciousness in service of the roles that she champions. Her notable career-defining moments predictably do not disappoint. Moreover, all the hidden gems in her résumé make me long for more experimentation from her (more cinematic auteurs, anyone?). Wilson’s showmanship is entirely human, and her ability to find beauty in the ghastliest creatures is beyond remarkable.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)