If Margaret Atwood didn’t already exist, 2017 would have had to invent her.
Earlier this year, Hulu’s Emmy-winning adaptation of her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” looked to the near future for a story of women bound in servitude. Now, Netflix’s six-part mini-series version of her “Alias Grace,” looks back a century and a half to find a story that is much the same in theme, but transfixingly different in style.
“Alias Grace,” available to stream on Friday, is a true-crime mystery in the form of an elliptical interrogation. It opens in 1859, in Victorian Canada, where Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a household servant, has been imprisoned for the 1843 murder of a farmer (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper (Anna Paquin).
Grace is a sensation, a celebrity even, in large part because she’s a young, mild-mannered woman. That circumstance affects every aspect of her case.
The actual killer, a stable hand (Kerr Logan) accuses her of using her wiles to manipulate him and mastermind the crime. She attracts the paternalistic interest of benefactors who want to see her pardoned. They hire a progressive young doctor, Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), to question and hopefully save her — though his curiosity is laced with condescension.
Grace is simultaneously vulnerable and strong. She’s a prisoner, a poor Irish immigrant, in an era where servant women are subject to the whims, and sometimes lusts, of their employers. Yet there’s a power in the fascination that her case inspires. Dr. Jordan hangs on her every word, and those words are all she has.
This adds tension and calculation to the flashback narrative. As Grace traces her route from a childhood of abuse to her last fateful posting, she’s gauging what Dr. Jordan might want to hear, feeling his reaction, titrating her response.
Is she innocent, guilty, crazy? “Alias Grace” is less about finding the definitive truth than watching Grace feel her way to the answer that could save her.
“Alias Grace” is a story about storytelling — one character compares Grace with Scheherazade — which makes Ms. Gadon essential to its success. She is mesmerizing. She plays Grace convincingly as a timid child and a toughened inmate, and she brings both of them to Grace’s wary testimony.
The novel by Ms. Atwood (who has a bit part as “Disapproving Woman”) is a challenge to adapt visually. It’s as internal and retrospective as “Handmaid’s” is propulsive, though both protagonists are slyly defiant. The screenwriter, Sarah Polley (who adapted a story from the Canadian author Alice Munro into the film “Away from Her”), turns it into a sinuous, layered script that is constantly aware of what is being said, to whom and why.
Mary Harron (“I Shot Andy Warhol”) directs the series dynamically. In an early sequence, Grace’s meditates on the curious phrase “celebrated murderess” over quick cuts of the crime — a body tumbling to the floor, a strip of cloth tightening around a throat.
For all that, “Alias Grace” isn’t overly brutal. It’s an exquisitely woven fabric with blood staining the corners. The violence is often in the language, as when a servant woman describes a death scene — the result of an illegal abortion — as smelling like a butcher shop.
You could almost mistake the series for a nostalgic period piece, as when a bushy-bearded Zachary Levi (“Chuck”) enters as a silver-tongued peddler, or when Grace befriends Mary (Rebecca Liddiard), a feisty, politically aware servant who fatefully attracts the interest of one of her employer’s sons. (The series follows Netflix’s roughed-up “Anne With an E,” which surfaced the dark subtext of “Anne of Green Gables,” another story of 19th-century Canadian girlhood.)
The series is conscious of class — there’s a little primer on colonial Canadian populism — and of how patriarchy pits women against women, like Nancy Montgomery (Ms. Paquin), the housekeeper and jealous lover of Grace’s employer, who terrorizes the staff below her.
Above all, “Alias Grace” is about how men abuse power over women, and how that power is always present, even when the men aren’t. It’s present in something as innocuous as a wedding quilt, which Grace likens to a battle flag. A bed may seem like a place of rest, she tells Dr. Jordan, but “there are many dangerous things that need take place on a bed.”
It’s tempting to think of this series, like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” as especially timely, with today’s revelations of sexual abuse in places of power. But to say that would suggest that there have been moments when these ideas would not be timely.
That doesn’t seem to be the message of the Year of Atwood, with “Grace” and “Handmaid” standing like beacons centuries apart. Look back on the calendar, they say, and look forward. The year changes. The time does not.