Have y’all been watching The Affair? You should be. It’s a beautiful show that relies more on the devastation that people wreck on each other’s emotional lives than on big, shocking plot twists, and its first season finale is tonight. However, my favorite part of the show isn’t the intricate interlacing story lines or the steamy romance. I’m simply obsessed with Ruth Wilson‘s performance on the show.
I should back up and say that I’ve been a massive fan of Wilson’s since 2006. I managed to catch her performance in the BBC’s production of Jane Eyre and was spellbound by how she not only fully inhabited the classic character, but found a new angle on her. Sometimes Jane can be depicted as an accidental heroine. She just so happens to be abused by her aunt, she just so happens to survive the horrors of Lowell school, she just so happens to fall into being a governess, and she just so happens to fall in love with her brooding employer…
Jane Eyre is smart, artsy, and plain, but she is not as retiring as many audiences — and actresses — think she is. There’s a reason why she and Mr. Rochester are matches. and it’s because there is a dark fire in her. She is a phoenix trapped in the body of a wren. Ruth Wilson understands this and that’s how she played her.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iU0DJFli4-A]
Of course, one good performance in a BBC miniseries does not an outstanding actress make, but Wilson has been consistently good in role after role. She lit up AMC’s The Prisoner and survived the mess that was The Lone Ranger. She can play smart and sexy, good and evil.
Most savvy television fans know Wilson from her work on Luther. Luther is yet another slick British detective series, but it is intense, crazy, and stars Idris Elba as John Luther, a brilliant detective whose methods are unconventional. Luther’s arch-rival is the brilliant and beguiling sociopath Alice Morgan (Wilson).
Every moment that Wilson and Elba square off against each other is electric. What could be read as an ordinary interrogation scene shifts into an intense psychological chess match that’s seething with underlying sexual tension. Wilson uses every power in her disposal as an actress – voice, posture, nuance, and slight facial ticks – to offer both Luther and the audience sneak peaks into the complex layers of Alice’s intelligence.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-ypyLzkg50]
So, we get it. Ruth Wilson is a great actress. But like I said up top, her work on The Affair is what proves she’s a genius.
The Affair tells the story of an intense extra-marital love affair from two different points of view. This means that every episode is split into two narratives that tell similar stories, but the facts don’t ever line up completely. The order of events changes, tiny details shift, and we never know if Ruth Wilson’s character Alison is an enchanting seductress or a sad victim of circumstance. (Hint: I think she’s both.)
What this also means is that the actors on the show often have to play the same scenes twice, but with subtle, yet meaningful, differences. Visually we can see these differences in how Alison dresses or how her hair is styled. In Dominic West’s character Noah’s take on things, she’s often dressed like a vixen. But Wilson takes it further. In Noah’s narratives, she often has the knowing smile of a minx and the confidence of a queen. In Alison’s story, though, her smiles are forced or embarrassed. There’s a sadness in her eyes and you can almost see that her soul is aching.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvA0ToYvOfA]
All of the actors on The Affair are amazing and the four leads (Wilson, West, Maura Tierney, and Joshua Jackson) are all called on to act out emotionally devastating moments again and again. But I always feel like Wilson is pulling off a magic trick. I know intellectually that she’s got a box of actor’s tricks that she’s digging into to tackle every scene, but she makes it look effortless. Every moment is natural. It’s a performance that feels captured by accident, which is what acting should ideally be.