Just as The Handmaid’s Tale rebels against the patriarchy of the future, Alias Grace — the second Margaret Atwood adaptation of 2017 — rails against it in the past. Written by actress-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley, the six-part Netflix drama is another unflinching look at the horrors of being a woman, but it trades a dystopia set in the near future for a grim period piece inspired by real-life 19th-century killer Grace Marks. The Handmaid’s Tale made us fear that Gilead is coming; Alias Grace argues it’s been here the whole time.
A young maid at the time of her conviction for double homicide, Grace (Sarah Gadon) is already years into her life sentence when she meets Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), the “alienist” (an archaic term for psychiatrist) sent to judge her sanity. For him, she recalls her journey to notoriety, which began when her abusive father shipped her out to earn her keep. Grace is frank about the misfortunes of her station: In one harrowing scene, she watches the door rattle as a man in a position of power tries to force his way into her room. “Once you’re found with a man in your room,” she tells her audience, “you are the guilty one, no matter how they get in.”
The story uses its structure to its own advantage, playing up Grace’s unfortunate hindsight — by the time she agrees to take a job with housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin), we know how it will end — to take away any illusion of choice in her youth. Alias Grace taps into the unease that comes from having no sense of the world a few miles down the road, which makes it all too easy to keep women in their place; however unsafe they might feel, who’s to say things wouldn’t be worse at another estate? Director Mary Harron (American Psycho) lets Grace’s claustrophobia simmer until it crescendos in an eerie fever pitch.
As a lead, Gadon is electrifying, her quilting needle always one stab away from drawing blood. The show makes little attempt to age her across the decades, which does underplay the physical toll her traumatic experiences likely would have taken on her, but Alias Grace is better for being left in her hands. Gadon makes Grace magnetically interesting without losing sight of her unreliability as a narrator, the defining framework of Atwood’s novel. Per The Handmaid’s Tale, this is a story told under her eye.
In fact, only one main character in the story is not based on an actual historical figure: Jordan, Grace’s audience. Already trapped by her confession of guilt in court, Grace discovers with Jordan that words can also be a way out, and she finds agency in the power she holds over his (and our) perception of the truth. “I’d rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices,” Grace declares early in the first episode, musing on the title society has given her. At least as a murderess, she isn’t a man wielding brutality to stay in power. If violence is inevitable, Alias Grace argues, it may as well be a woman’s uprising.