LA Times Review: Netflix brings Margaret Atwood back to the small screen with engrossing ‘Alias Grace’

A streaming series based on a Margaret Atwood novel about the subjugation of women that isn’t Hulu’s Emmy-winning, critically lauded “The Handmaid’s Tale”?

Sarah Gadon in the Netflix original series “Alias Grace.” (Jan Thijs / Netflix )
Sarah Gadon in the Netflix original series “Alias Grace.” 
(Jan Thijs / Netflix )

The bar is high for Netflix miniseries “Alias Grace,” adapted from a 1996 Atwood novel of historical fiction. It’s set in bleak Colonial-era Canada, centuries before the dystopian future suffered by the handmaids.

The Canadian/American production, out Friday, stands on its own as a gripping if not as deeply disturbing miniseries. But it does complement “The Handmaid’s Tale” — and today’s headlines — as a sort of precursor to the ongoing story of women’s exploitation at the hands of more powerful men.

“Alias Grace” is based on the true story of a poor Irish immigrant, housemaid Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), who is locked up in an Ontario penitentiary for double murder.

The mere word “murderess” makes her a source of intrigue in local sewing circles and smoking rooms. Women discuss her crime over needlepoint and across clotheslines, men analyze her character in newspaper articles, clergy circles and medical journals.

How could a woman commit one, let alone two, murders? She is the fairer sex, reserved, passive and lacking the rage and complex motives of men. There must be an explanation for this aberration: Grace is either mad, thick or possessed by demons.

Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) is hired to assess her by clergy members who feel Grace is innocent. They want him to help bolster their argument for her release, but the young doctor who practices an approach that doesn’t require a black bag and instruments (today it’s called psychiatry) is determined to reach his own conclusions based on his daily sessions with Grace.

As her story unravels, the doctor begins to see the challenges Grace has faced as a vulnerable woman of the lower class, and in turn the oppressive fate suffered by many women in the mid-19th century.

Grace was young and literally fresh off the boat when she found employment with a well-to-do family and befriended fellow maid Mary (Rebecca Liddiard). Mary was worldly compared with the naive Grace, and often coached Grace on the dangers and excitement of the world outside the kitchens and servant’s quarters they inhabited. But even the strong and brave Mary is subject to the wiles of the rich and powerful men she once warned Grace about, and she dies after complications from an abortion.

When Grace takes a job at another household to avoid the same fate as Mary, she finds that abuse was not exclusive to her last employer. To make matters worse, she must also contend with poor treatment from the household’s jealous maid and mistress, Nancy (Anna Paquin).

“Alias Grace” is not a light viewing experience. It brings to life a desperate world of servitude, where choices were so limited for women that often the only options were abuse or starvation. It’s a prison of sorts, not all that different from the one Grace languishes in after the murders.

The grim landscape painted here makes one wonder why more women didn’t commit more crimes à la murderess Grace Marks. In “Alias Grace,” their only form of expression is in the quilts they sew, and those quilts tell stories long after the women who make them are gone.

The miniseries, which also stars Zachary Levi as peddler Jeremiah and David Cronenberg as Reverend Verringer, packs considerable drama, emotion and misery into six episodes. It’s so heavy throughout the first installment, you might wish for at least one of the characters to open a parlor window and let in some air, but as the story progresses it becomes too engrossing to turn away.

“Alias Grace” isn’t “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but it is part of the same story – a story of oppression passed down from generation to generation.

‘Alias Grace’

Where: Netflix

When: Any time, starting Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)