It’s hard to not compare Netflix’s “Alias Grace” with that other streaming platform’s adaptation of a Margaret Atwood novel, Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The Hulu series, starring Elisabeth Moss, debuted just this past April; “Alias Grace” premieres at the Toronto Film Festival Sept. 14 and then on Netflix Nov. 3. For fans of Atwood, being suddenly blessed with two weighty productions within six months of each other is a rare gift.
Though there are obvious similarities between the two — it is almost funny, that both stories focus on one particular wide-eyed white woman wearing a demure cap — they are quite different interpretations of Atwood’s prose. “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a drama, softens the brutality of the plot with exceptional, masterful visuals. “Alias Grace,” a miniseries, is much less cinematically adventurous, but much more narratively complex. This is in part due to the vast difference between the two Atwood novels. “The Handmaid’s Tale” presents a dystopia; “Alias Grace” is a piece of postmodern historical fiction — one that incorporates fragments of actual historical record with first-person narration and epistolary structure. The patchwork narrative is brilliantly deliberate, because throughout the book, Grace is piecing together quilts.
It makes for a story that is a lot more challenging to bring to life than its staid setting in Victorian Canada might appear. For a book that is essentially un-adaptable, though, “Alias Grace” presents a remarkably faithful and dazzlingly complex portrait of servant girl Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a real-life “celebrated murderess” who was found guilty and imprisoned, at 16, for the killing of her master and mistress. The details of what exactly happened cannot easily be summarized, because questions remain to this day — about her intent, her involvement, and the story’s primary concern, her character. “Alias Grace” is an attempt to understand her, but the viewer will likely find, by the end, that that attempt raises more questions than it answers.
“Alias Grace” introduces us to Grace through the attentions of Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), an early practitioner of what we now call psychiatry. Dr. Jordan’s mission is to investigate whether Grace is now insane, or was insane at the time of the murders, as that might be an avenue to pardon her. At first Grace is skeptical of his questions, but as she grows more comfortable, her story expands. But, counter-intuitively, the more she says, the less clear it is what she actually means. “Alias Grace” is built around the unrelenting ambiguity of its protagonist, and it manages the Herculean effort of making a six-part miniseries thrum with that same sense of being adrift in a woman’s story without having any idea of who she really is.
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