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.
Gadon, as Grace, is transporting: Her performance is the foundation on which “Alias Grace” is built. Her Grace seems to shapeshift in front of the screen, from a raging woman to a scared girl to a chapter-and-verse good Methodist. Gadon could pass for a ‘90s-era Fiona Apple, with all the discomfiting self-awareness that implies; that she is always busily sewing makes her seem even more latently dangerous. Polley transposes most of Grace’s lines straight from Atwood’s book, and the result is luminous — snatches of visceral poetry in a hoop-skirted, corseted world. In a passage from the book that makes it to the screen, she describes what it feels like to talk to Dr. Jordan: “… a feeling of being torn open; not like a body of flesh, it is not painful as such, but like a peach; and not even torn open, but too ripe and splitting open of its own accord. And inside the peach—” she pauses.
“There’s a stone.”
One of the more exceptional elements of Gadon’s performance is how totally she devotes herself to the menial labor that makes up most of Grace’s existence. She sews almost without looking; her hands are chapped and calloused from hot water and hard work. Atwood’s story takes place primarily in domestic interiors — kitchens and parlors and bedrooms — and Grace’s duty in the world, from a very young age, is to run a household for someone else. “Alias Grace” — and Grace herself — observes how casually fine ladies and educated men take domestic help for granted. The first episode begins with Grace looking into the camera as if she is looking at herself, and that establishes the miniseries’ primary tension: How Grace is seen, which is mediated by how Grace wants to be seen. Every person who comes into her life, with the occasional exception of Dr. Jordan, sees only what they expect — or can use. But Grace is not a blank slate, and underneath her cast-down eyes is buried feminine rage. And as “Alias Grace” progresses, Grace’s story erodes Dr. Jordan’s peace of mind; the gaps in her narrative and contradictions in her assertions suggest either that she is lying to him — or to herself.
Next to Gadon’s psychologically complex portrayal of Grace, everything else about the piece fades into the background. Dr. Jordan, in particular, feels like a character that could have had more to him; the unstable connection between him and Grace is the spine of the story, but in the series he’s both a little more woke and a little less compelling. A-listers Anna Paquin and David Cronenberg play supporting characters with an inexplicable lack of affect, while relatively unknown actors populate the other roles around Grace like satellites around a star. At times, director Mary Harron’s vision for Grace has delicious, layered urgency — her memories come back in fits and starts, and while talking to Dr. Jordan she’ll remember the face of a friend, the thud of a body, or the sound of an axe biting into meat. But just as often, the camerawork is a bit inert; it’s as if the production can’t keep pace with the rich complexity of the written material, which is redolent with subtext. To be fair, little could — and if “Alias Grace” relies a bit too much on set pieces that feel like they could have been bought at a Victorian set piece store, the Dickensian romance at least serves to create a sharp contrast with the decidedly unromantic abuses Grace and others suffer.
In most of the ways that matter, Netflix’s “Alias Grace” presents an adaptation that delivers the gothic horror, social commentary, and domestic investigation of the novel (although a choice made at the very end, which is one of the few deviations from the source material, feels like a jarring mistake). But it’s less clear, over 20 years after the original novel was published, what relevance Grace Marks’ story has for the contemporary viewer. Atwood found, in Grace Marks, an entry point for discussing a range of social anxieties that all overlapped on the question of this one woman’s guilt. As a working-class Irish immigrant, Grace activated anxieties about race, class, and gender; as a prisoner and patient, she tweaked Victorian contradictions about punishment, sanity, and rehabilitation through faith. Grace, at the overlapping center of these things, is presented both as a scapegoat and a victim, a problem without a solution. She is a lens through which to view or re-view Canadian history, and as the series details, “Alias Grace” examines the entire Victorian historical moment in and around Toronto through the punished body of this one woman. But while “The Handmaid’s Tale” has endless, coursing relevance that animates that drama beyond its narrative confines, “Alias Grace” seems more designed to sit quietly on a shelf. This is not bad, exactly, but it is a little unsettling. Grace Marks might enjoy a life of obscurity, but one does not feel entirely safe knowing she is out there, waiting for our attention.