The Economist: “Alias Grace”, another triumphant Atwood adaptation

THIS week, the Supreme Court paved the way for the execution of Vernon Madison, a 67-year-old from Alabama convicted of murdering a police officer three decades ago. Having suffered strokes, Mr Madison no longer remembers his crime, and is diagnosed with both dementia and amnesia. All nine justices agreed that discontinuity in a person’s coherence does not prevent the state from carrying out punishment.

“Alias Grace”, a new Netflix miniseries, is interesting to watch in light of this case. It too considers the overlapping spheres of memory and accountability. Grace Marks (played by Sarah Gadon) is an Irish maid sentenced to life imprisonment; Dr Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) is an early practitioner of psychiatry tasked with investigating her case. With Grace claiming to have no recollection of the crimes, Dr Jordan spends his mornings probing her subconscious for evidence of periodic amnesia. In a neat visual metaphor, Grace recounts her testimony while piecing together quilts, sewing almost without looking down. As she contradicts herself again and again, Dr Jordan becomes increasingly enthralled by her, ultimately losing his professional detachment.

Adapted from Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed novel, “Alias Grace” is itself based on the real-life murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in Upper Canada (now Southern Ontario) in 1843. Two servants of the Kinnear household were convicted of the crime. James McDermott, the stable-hand, was hanged while Grace received her controversial life sentence. Fifteen years later, no one can vouch for Grace’s sincerity and Dr Jordan—a fictional addition to the story—refuses to write the medical report which would invoke the temporary insanity plea and allow the granting of a pardon.

It is suggested that trauma, and something more intangible and otherworldly, are responsible for her lapses in memory. Before the murders Grace’s friend Mary, a maid in service in another household, is seduced by the eldest son. She obtains a backstreet abortion and bleeds to death. Grace believes she hears Mary’s voice whisper in the room where her corpse is lying on the bed, and rushes to open the window for her soul to depart. Her mind returns to that whispered moment, her inability to save her friend and the image of the closed window repeatedly; Grace has not been the same since. It is a fresh take on a piece of stock gothic imagery.

It is through flashbacks to these events, as well as to the murder and other scenes, that the texture of the narrative is gradually woven. Almost 30 years after her imprisonment, Grace is released and married at last. Idly happy in her own house, she is finishing the patchwork she has been sewing. Here Ms Atwood again undermines a clichéd narrative tool. Rather than a neat resolution, Grace’s inability—and, as a result, the viewer’s—to settle on a straightforward sequence of events haunts the narrative. “If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged,” she says, confessing that she thought of committing the murders, but leaving her participation a question mark.

It is a powerful adaptation, with Sarah Polley’s screenplay preserving the ambiguity of Ms Atwood’s novel. As with many of her works, “Alias Grace” is an inward-looking narrative, and the series is nourished and sustained by Grace’s poised voiceovers (as in the Emmy-award-winning “The Handmaid’s Tale”, which depended on Offred’s interior commentary). Grace may be the unreliable narrator par excellence but Ms Gadon’s nuanced performance brims with precision even while embodying the mercurial nature of truth.

Directed by Mary Harron (“American Psycho”), the cinematography draws out luminous scenes in the gloomy kitchens and cellars of Victorian manor houses. Replete with dark gothic undertones, it indulges in moments of pure horror (the murder itself, which recurs throughout the series, shows one victim thrown down the cellar stairs. The thud of a body hitting the hard floor is followed by the sound of a breaking neck). The visual language of the series chimes with its mood.

Uncertainty and doubt are essential elements of any drama, but “Alias Grace” puts relativism at its heart. Grace, the “celebrated murderess”, has a disarming and unnerving approach to truth; by the series’ close, the question of her innocence or guilt has almost ceased to matter. It weighs up the law, which always pushes for clarity, against the ambiguities and unknowable recesses of the mind.

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