Alias Grace review: 'Probably won’t generate the same kind of popular buzz as The Handmaid’s Tale but it deserves to'
Alias Grace, Netflix (available now)
This really is the year of Margaret Atwood. One adaptation of a novelist’s work that does full justice to the source material a year is rare enough. Two in the space of a few months is something that almost never happens.
The six-part mini-series Alias Grace, based on Atwood’s Booker-shortlisted 1996 novel, probably won’t generate the same kind of popular buzz as the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale, which chimed perfectly with the fraught, anxious mood of the moment, but from the three episodes I’ve watched so far it deserves to.
Even though Alias Grace is presented as a historical drama and true-crime mystery, the connective tissue between it and the dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale is strong.
Both books/series focus on women in servitude who are subject to the whims, lusts and cruelties of the ruling class. Here it’s Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), an Irish immigrant to 19th century Canada who becomes a household maid to Scottish farmer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross).
The real Grace was convicted in 1843 for the murders of Kinnear and his housekeeper-lover Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin). The person who carried out the actual killings was stablehand James McDermott (Kerr Logan), who claimed at his trial that Grace was the real mastermind behind the crimes and used her wiles to manipulate him into doing her bidding.
McDermott was hanged and Grace imprisoned. Alias Grace picks up the story 15 years on and layers a gripping, tantalising fictional tale on top.
Grace’s notoriety has morphed into a form of celebrity. She’s still languishing in prison, but spends a few hours every day working as a maid in the governor’s mansion, where his wife and her friends regard her as a source of gruesome fascination.
Grace has benefactors, however, who want to secure her release. They hire a progressive psychiatrist, Dr Simon Jordan, a wholly fictional character played by Edward Holcroft, to question her.
As Grace, wary at first, gradually opens up to Jordan, her story unfolds in flashbacks.
She tells of her mother’s death aboard the disease-ridden coffin ship that brought her to Canada, of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her drunken father and of her first engagement as a maid in the household of the wealthy Parkinson family.
Here she becomes best friends with another young maid, Mary Whitby (Rebecca Liddiard), who’s feisty and politically aware yet still naive enough to be seduced by her employer’s son, who promises her they’ll be married.
Needless to say, he spurns her when she becomes pregnant, fobbing her off with $5. Mary has a backstreet abortion that results in her death and hastens Grace’s decision to go to work in the Kinnear household.
Dr Jordan is as entranced by Grace as everyone else, hanging on her every word and gradually developing sexual feelings for her. He struggles to reconcile the cold-hearted murders with the woman seated before him.
The genius of Alias Grace is that neither he nor we can tell if we’re being played for fools. Grace is a slippery, ambiguous customer. What we’re seeing in the flashbacks is frequently undermined by her interior monologue – a device Alias Grace shares with The Handmaid’s Tale.
There are potential clues suggesting Grace may be the ultimate unreliable narrator.
“Mary Whitby”, we’re told, is the name Grace gave when she escaped from the insane asylum. Her reaction to finding Mary dead – she touches her face then recoils from its coldness – mirrors exactly her reaction to finding her mother dead.
A scene where Grace, apparently delusional after Mary’s death, seems to believe she is Mary suggests the character could be a complete fabrication.
Throughout the interrogation, Grace is stitching a quilt. There are frequent close-ups of thread being looped and snipped. Is she stitching together stories too, creating a quilt of deceit to cover the ugly truth?
Writer Sarah Polley and director Mary Harron have done a marvellous job of bringing Atwood’s book to the screen, and their efforts are matched by Gadon, who gives a fabulously nuanced, shaded and subtle performance. Superb.