By Sophie Gilbert
In a scene in the second episode of Netflix’s Alias Grace, Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) comforts her best friend, Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), who’s in extraordinary pain following an illegal abortion. Both are teenagers and servant girls in Upper Canada. Mary’s been abandoned by the wealthy man who promised to marry her but who now wants her to drown herself to spare him any shame. “Grace, I am so angry,” Mary says, shaking. “I am so very angry.” To comfort her, Grace talks about the political rebellion in Canada, where revolutionaries are demanding liberty and independence. “They don’t have it yet, but they will,” she says. “Because we didn’t lose. We just haven’t won yet.”
Alias Grace is the second TV adaptation of a Margaret Atwood book this year to uncannily predict the moment it landed in. The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s luminous, Emmy-winning portrayal of a near-future dystopia where fertile women are forced into reproductive slavery, debuted in April, as many American women were considering their reproductive rights under the Trump/Pence administration. Alias Grace debuted on Canada’s CBC in September but arrived on Netflix last Friday, in the midst of one of the biggest confrontations of systematic sexual abuse and harassment in recent history. Women of all different ages, in a vast range of industries, are speaking openly, and angrily, about their experiences, often for the very first time. And these manifold stories, these abundant personal wounds, are coming together, piece by piece, to reveal a larger reality, like the construction of a patchwork quilt.
For those who’ve read the 1996 book, it might not seem like a perfect fit. Alias Grace is a story set in Canada in the middle of the 19th century, based on the real life of a convicted murderess, Grace Marks, and it rests on the ambiguity of whether she’s innocent or guilty, lying or telling the truth. But the veracity of Grace’s stories, Atwood seems to argue, is less significant than comprehending the fault lines of her life, and of the lives of women like her. Grace is tyrannized by an abusive father, works countless hours as a maid for a pittance, and is constantly forced to negotiate her own safety with little to trade. Even her first-person accounts—the most powerful form of currency she has—are undermined by the fact that she has to tailor them to best fit the preconceptions and predilections of her listeners.
The new miniseries is written and created by Sarah Polley, the Canadian director, actress, and activist who followed up a career as a child star (Road to Avonlea, Ramona) with the assured directorial debut Away From Her in 2006. In October, Polley contributed a first-person essay to The New York Times about her experiences as an actress, which included being propositioned by Harvey Weinstein. “On sets,” she wrote, “I saw women constantly pressured to exploit their sexuality and then chastised as sluts for doing so.” She recalls getting together with a group of performers to discuss an idea in which they turned their worst professional experiences into a comedy project. But when they detailed those experiences, the nature of them changed. “They were stories of assault,” Polley wrote. “When they were spoken out loud, it was impossible to reframe them any other way.”
This understanding that stories can not only shape but also redefine reality is the crinoline core to Alias Grace. In 1843, at the age of 16, Grace was convicted of the murder of Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), her employer, and Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin), his housekeeper and mistress. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, the story starts in the middle of Grace’s imprisonment, after she’s been incarcerated for more than a decade in Kingston Penitentiary. During the day she’s transported to the governor’s mansion, where she works as a maid, and where the mistress of the house has grown so fond of Grace’s meek and dutiful ways that she’s working to prove her innocence. As part of that effort, an American psychologist, Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), is hired to interview Grace, and to establish the truth of her story.
In the first scene Grace stares at her reflection in the mirror, considering all the things that have been written about her and trying to match her expression to the various personas that have been foisted on her: demon, innocent, temptress, idiot. “I wonder,” she thinks, “how can I be all these different things at once?” The tension of the next six episodes comes from determining which of them, if any, apply, since the authentic Grace, even in her personal narration to the viewer, remains elusive.
The show, though, is constructed from pieces of Grace’s story—how she left Ireland as a child to travel to Canada, how her mother died on the filthy and disease-ridden boat, how her violent father tried to rape her before sending her out to work. Dr. Jordan listens and makes notes as Grace recounts her life. At the end of the first episode, while she sews in her prison cell, she thinks about his interest in the case, and wonders why everyone seeks to probe and expose her. “It’s a feeling of being torn open,” she thinks. “Like a peach. And not even torn open, but being too ripe and splitting of its own accord.” The relationship between storyteller and listener is strange, voyeuristic, and symbiotic.
The adaptation rests on Gadon’s enigmatic and subtle performance as Grace. For the most part she’s restrained, muted, and bruised, but there are moments where Gadon gets to unexpectedly prove her range. Alias Grace is directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol), who’s long found rich territory in the intersection of internal and external selves. Viewers see right from the start that there’s a disconnect between what Grace thinks and what she tells Dr. Jordan. Her replies to him are convincing, but carefully arranged. And her defense rests on her assertion that she simply can’t remember the deaths of Montgomery and Kinnear, while we, the audience, repeatedly see flashes of the event: of bodies tumbling down staircases and droplets of blood.
Alias Grace is essentially a true-crime story, albeit one based on a 174-year-old case. But through the combined efforts of Polley and Harron, and with Atwood’s text as its base, it’s true crime filtered through the female gaze. Grace might be a murderer, but she’s also a victim. She’s abused and assaulted at home, at work, and in prison; she learns not to visit the outhouse alone at night, and to keep her bedroom door locked. “Once you are found with a man in your room, you are the guilty one, no matter how they get in,” she explains to Dr. Jordan. Grace is the interpreter for this world, and her viewpoint, however unreliable, is the dominant one. But Harron makes choices that also distinguish the show from other crime dramas. There are no slow creeps of the camera along the outlines of a female corpse, no graphic images of sexual violence. The only things we learn are the things Grace feels comfortable telling.
In all that, Alias Grace is discomfiting, compelling, deeply insightful television. It looks not to an alternate future, like The Handmaid’s Tale does, but to the past. And there, it finds sharp parallels with the current moment. “A girl of 15 or 16 is accounted a woman,” Grace explains to a teenage boy who’s courting her, in a moment that resonates uncomfortably with recent news. “A boy of the same age is still a boy.” She’s come to know all the various ways the world sees her. The thrill of this series is that she’s given the means to take control of the narrative.