Writer Sarah Polley, director Mary Harron and star Sarah Gadon deliver a twisty tale of murder and transgressive femininity in Netflix’s Margaret Atwood adaptation.
With its Margaret Atwood pedigree, concealing bonnets and backdrop of a society in which women are either decorative or chattel, there will be an instinct to compare Netflix and CBC’s miniseries Alias Grace to Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
It’s an instinct best avoided, because for all of the ways in which The Handmaid’s Tale is bombastic and incendiary, Alias Grace is internalized and simmering and harder to instantly mobilize around. Consistently literate, thoughtful and insinuating, the mini also boasts an intriguing and deliberately evasive lead performance by Sarah Gadon, work that again probably shouldn’t be compared to the juggernaut that is Elisabeth Moss’ Handmaid’s Tale work.
So from here on, there will be no more references to Handmaid’s Tale.
Written in its entirety by Sarah Polley and directed in its entirety by Mary Harron, the six-episode Alias Grace won’t air until Nov. 3 on Netflix, but had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and will launch on Sept. 25 on CBC. I’ve seen the entire miniseries.
Alias Grace begins in 1859 at Ontario’s Kingston Penitentiary. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), an American expert in issues of mental health, has been brought in by a friendly reverend (David Cronenberg) looking to exonerate Grace Marks (Gadon), convicted double murderess. Although she confessed at her trial, Grace has become a cause celebre, a blank sheet upon which men project their own inability to understand women in general and, more specifically, how a woman could commit a masculine crime. Is she simple? Crazy? Is she possessed by a demon? Is she covering for the true killer? Arriving with no preconceived notions, Dr. Jordan sits down with Grace and, in a number of sessions, begins to hear a tale that begins decades earlier with her arrival in pre-independence Toronto, an innocent Irish waif about to learn tough lessons about life as a domestic in the new world.
The more Jordan listens to Grace’s story, the more obsessed he becomes and the less certain he is about her guilt or innocence and his own ability to understand her (and, by extension again, women).
Female agency through storytelling, whether the figurative yarn weaving of Scheherazade or the literal weaving and unweaving that Penelope used to ward off her own suitors, is the spine of Alias Grace, both narratively and behind-the-scenes.
Polley and Harron (and Atwood’s source material) represent a powerful and thoroughly in-synch writing-directing team, spinning six episodes of television out of a story that is, on its surface, barely a film’s worth of plot.
Instead of leading viewers directly to a conclusion about Grace’s mental state or what actually happened with her two alleged victims, Polley’s scripts layer mostly uncertainty. After years in an asylum in which punishments for speaking can be quite brutal, Grace’s only power in the series is in her ability to recapture her own history, and once she senses the potency in being heard, she’s not interested in losing her audience. The elongation of the simple plot is both seduction and survival, and Polley and Harron play a similar game. Our understanding of the crime is blurred by a constantly shifting perspective in which it isn’t always clear if our narrator is Grace in conversation with Dr. Jordan, Grace in an unspecified later missive, Grace’s own internal monologue or the version recounted by Grace’s alleged co-conspirator. Each perspective comes with its own agenda, and the question very quickly becomes less whether Grace did or didn’t do it and more how each different version of the story stands to benefit (or harm) her. The truth could set Grace free, but which truth?
Polley (or the Atwood source material) segments the episodes with quotes from the likes of Longfellow, Hawthorne, Poe and bookending Emily Dickinson verses. These epigraphs might over-explain some of the show’s themes on mental illness and male perspectives on female fragility, but they also set a tone in which one’s approach to episodes is read them as literary and not visceral.
Without pointing to stylistic similarities, it’s easy to place Alias Grace alongside Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol and The Notorious Bettie Page as studies in transgressive femininity. Lest this become Canadian Psycho, Harron shows restraint when it comes to depicting brutality. Visually, the flashbacks are presented in the gauzy haze of a woman who either wants to remember the best of the past, can’t remember the worst or is purposely trying to obfuscate. The graphic moments of violence intrude into Grace’s tale only briefly before she can push them away, and she approaches sexuality either with a puritanical sheepishness or attempting to project virginal purity to a potential suitor. In this seduction, luring out Dr. Jordan’s white-knight tendencies, the nightmare Grace has the hardest time repressing is the cruelty of the asylum, moments that could be the most revealing of all.
Because Alias Grace is about contradictions, Gadon has an ambitious performance task. In the framing device, we’re always watching Grace watch Dr. Jordan and wondering at her sincerity and manipulation. Then we probably spend more time with Grace in flashbacks as a teenager, which would be a stretch for the 30-year-old actress, except that I think we’re supposed to view those flashbacks as Dr. Jordan’s attempt to reconcile the innocent and murderer as the same woman. It’ll be up to viewers to decide if there’s a conclusive “real” Grace and I don’t think Gadon ever stops toying with us and with Dr. Jordan, and it’s often thrilling to watch.
Gadon’s Irish accent is acceptably consistent and effectively chirpy, though it all becomes a bit much in later episodes when she’s conversing with Due South veteran Paul Gross, whose Scottish accent is much less assured. There’s a Shrek meets the Lucky Charms leprechaun quality to those conversations that could have been very bad had there been more of them. (Gadon’s good enough that I only thought a few times about how different the project might have been had Polley chosen to star as well.)
It’s mostly Grace’s show and story and the impact of most of the supporting performances is limited, including Holcroft’s wooden-but-earnest turn. As Grace’s early companion Mary, Rebecca Liddiard infuses a lot of monologues about nationalist Canadian history with energy that carries through the six episodes. Zachary Levi, partially hiding behind a bushy beard, rolls in and out as a rascally peddler and fortune teller and if it feels like he’s in a different show, I think that’s intentional. Anna Paquin features heavily in later episodes and does a couple interesting things with a prickly character whose version of female empowerment isn’t very likable. And while Cronenberg doesn’t have much to do here, the show wears his presence like a Canadian badge of honor, as it darned well should. This is a very, very Canadian show.
With only six episodes of broadcast (40-plus minutes) length, Alias Grace is brief and, because only a little happens, moves quickly. The hook may be a murder, but it’s more interestingly examined as a story about storytelling and for the contributions of Polley, Harron and Gadon.