The Guardian: Alias Grace review – a blessed adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s extraordinary novel

This cerebral true-crime miniseries, brilliantly adapted by Sarah Polley, is just as well done – and just as suited to our times – as The Handmaid’s Tale

On Netflix, Alias Grace is tagged “cerebral”. That is part promise, part warning, according to taste, but cerebral this adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s extraordinary, slippery, sinuous 1996 novel certainly is.

Powerful and subtle … Sarah Gadon in Alias Grace. Photograph: Sabrina Lantos/Netflix
Powerful and subtle … Sarah Gadon in Alias Grace. Photograph: Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

The plot is based on a real Canadian murder case. In 1843, 16-year-old Irish immigrant Grace Marks and James McDermott, her fellow servant in the household of Thomas Kinnear, were convicted of murdering Kinnear and his housekeeper-lover Nancy Montgomery. McDermott was hanged and Marks was sentenced to life imprisonment.

And those, really, are all the facts we have. The rest of the book is about the question of Grace’s guilt or innocence, and this miniseries faithfully follows Atwood’s construction and deconstruction of layers of possibility. Simon Jordan (played by Edward Holcroft, as softly yet compellingly as he played Alex Turner in 2015’s London Spy) is the doctor set to work to probe Grace’s mind and uncover the truth.Alias Grace: an astonishingly timely portrait of the brutality of powerlessnessRead more

The elusiveness of the truth – and the anti-immigrant sentiment and class distinctions that permeate the story – resonate in the age of fake news, and especially at a time when the weight we give to women’s stories is under particular consideration. Grace’s version of events is modified by her lawyer, perverted by the gutter press, ignored by asylum doctors and distorted by her own desire to amuse, protect and perhaps to avenge herself on a world in which she has, from childhood, been exposed to the worst that the men who run it have to offer. Grace is written in and out of her own story, obscured by clouds of rumour, fear and lust, turned inside out by grief – can anything real remain?

This second Atwood adaptation of the year will inevitably be compared to the first, The Handmaid’s Tale, and will likely be found to lack its predecessor’s narrative drive. Perhaps it will be just that bit too “cerebral” to gather as much buzz. But it is quietly just as masterly – an astonishing feat of translation to the screen by writer Sarah Polley (who wrote to Atwood asking for the movie rights when she first read the book at 17) and director Mary Harron, and as powerful and subtle a performance from Sarah Gadon as Grace as you could wish. Blessed be this Atwoodian fruit too.

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