In the late 1800s, a young Irish immigrant, Grace Marks, arrived on Canadian shores and began work as a maid. After suffering through many years of heartbreak and hardship, she was ultimately arrested for colluding with a stable hand in the murder of her employer and his housekeeper. Was she at the mercy of a madman, or was she in fact the mastermind?
The story of Grace Marks is a true one, and Margaret Atwood adapted that story into a 1996 novel, Alias Grace, which has now been turned into a meditative Netflix miniseries by Sarah Polley. Grace’s story has been a fascinatinon for so long because of its mystery, yes, but also its circumstances: historically, it’s unusual for women (especially a teenager, essentially), to commit such a heinous crime. Grace’s guilt was always in doubt, and through Atwood and now Polley’s work, we are given a new view of the topic with several possible outcomes.
Netflix’s six-hour Alias Grace is gorgeously directed by Mary Harron and written in full by Polley. It allows Grace (a wonderful Sarah Gadon) to tell us her story chronologically and leading up to that fateful day through her conversations with a young doctor, Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), who has been brought in by wealthy patrons to confirm Grace’s innocence after 15 years in prison.
Gadon, who plays Grace over a 30 year period, clearly distinguishes her younger, wide-eyed version with the calm, practical woman who recounts this tale (all with a plucky Irish lilt). Knowing that two murders eventually take place, and ruminating on the term “murderess” and the weight it puts on her, we’re naturally tempted by the idea of a gruesome scene to come and the truth behind it. But Grace also calls us out on our lurid desire to know the reason behind such a crime potentially committed by such an unusual suspect. Taken each day from the prison to the Governor’s mansion to work as a maid, Grace is on display as a curiosity there the same way she is, in some ways, for us.
When watching Alias Grace it’s hard to not think of another recent Margaret Atwood adaptation, The Handmaid’s Tale. At least, thematically. Both battle the male gaze through the voice of a woman narrating to us her true story, as those around her try and shape it for themselves. Both also feature women without power being abused or manipulated by men, and reveal their own manipulations in return as they try and restore some sense of agency. But while Handmaid’s Tale was a much bigger, more sprawling series (and one that was too heavy to binge watch), Alias Grace is quieter, softer, and more intimate.
But indeed, everywhere Grace turns, she’s victimized by the men around her: her drunk and abusive father, the son of a wealthy employer, the guards at the prison, the doctors at the asylum. The question that lingers throughout the series, though, is whether or not she was also a victim of the stable hand, James McDermott (Kerr Logan), or a willing collaborator when it comes to the murders. For most of the episode, Gadon plays Grace as pleasant and placid, innocent, inquisitive, and certainly intelligent. She has a strong moral compass, and nothing in her story or in the scenes we witness seems to suggest she could have truly been guilty of the crimes she’s accused of. And yet, there is a cumulative effect of the losses she has sustained that eventually makes a case for the other side, especially given the series’ undercurrent of revolution. Atwood’s finale gives her thoughts as to the truth of the crime itself, but like any great crime series, that truth becomes less important than the story around it.
Alias Grace tells its story in a way that is compellingly paced yet unhurried. Through Harron’s lens, Grace guides us through the most important moments of her early life, including a pivotal friendship with a fellow maid, Mary (Rebecca Liddiard), whose name Grace assumes when she goes on the run with James in the aftermath of the murders. It’s deeply affecting, and there’s never a rush to get to the dark day that causes Jordan to speak with her in the first place. The burdened Jordan is something of an avatar here for viewers as well — he’s hesitate of Grace at first, then enamored with her, and ultimately skeptical to the point of his own madness in his desire to know the truth.
Polley, who brought the series the life, has assembled an earnest cast (of mostly Canadians) which includes Anna Paquin and Paul Gross as the unfortunate victims of the crime, Zachary Levi as a rakish peddler (who can feel like he’s from a different series), as well as David Cronenberg playing a Reverend convinced of Grace’s innocence. But the series rests on Gadon’s shoulders, and she acts as both a Beatrice and a potential siren. Grace is inscrutable, yet she’s also exceptionally easy to sympathize with; Gadon’s soft features combined with the steely reserve that she gives Grace makes for a powerful and complex combination.
Alias Grace tells a complete and satisfying story that both calls attention to and satiates our desire for the gory details we crave from such a story. For those who haven’t read the book, there are clues along the way about what may have happened to Grace on that fateful day, and what her part was in it. Not everything is explicitly explained, and not everything can be fully believed. But one of the reasons the series succeeds and Grace Marks’ story has remained one of such fascination is because some questions can simply never be answered.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — A captivating story
Alias Grace premieres November 3rd on Netflix.