Alias Grace is the second major Margaret Atwood adaptation to arrive in 2017. In and of itself, that isn’t a remarkable occurrence. Atwood is one of our greatest living authors, a writer of such prominence that Kazuo Ishiguro personally apologized to her when accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature this October; her catalog is broad, rich, and beloved enough to support several interpretations a year, not just two. Beyond that, Alias Grace is another Atwood adaptation that wears its subjectivity on its sleeve, subsuming itself to the point of view of a marginalized woman in a misogynist society. The woman even wears a face-framing bonnet at all times, frequently in close-up. Comparisons of Alias Grace to The Handmaid’s Tale aren’t just inevitable after the latter’s big Emmy win; they’re warranted. But Alias Grace, a joint production between Netflix and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, simmers with a quieter kind of fury than its flashier cousin. Put another way: The cerebral six-episode series is a deeply, unmistakably Canadian undertaking.
Alias Grace, which debuts on Friday, is the passion project of actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley, who wrote the script. A quotation from Atwood’s novel, which is based on the real-life case of 19th century convicted murderess Grace Marks, serves as the epigraph to Polley’s extraordinary 2012 documentary Stories We Tell, and it’s obvious what attracted Polley to the text. Stories We Tell is a film about a person—Polley’s mother—shown through the people who knew or thought they knew her best; the film explores how the different guises we wear for different relationships add up to a coherent, or incoherent, whole. Alias Grace follows Grace, an Irish maid who received a life sentence for double murder as a teenager, as her story is mediated, sensationalized, and generally wrested from her control, resulting in a permanent ambiguity about who she truly is or was. It’s an ambiguity that lives on in Sarah Gadon’s performance, instilling Grace with a pointed guardedness she maintains even when offered the opportunity to speak for herself in interviews with psychologist Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), the latest in a long procession of male experts still poking and prodding her for answers 15 years after her original conviction.
Grace’s passivity is inseparable from her relative powerlessness. She is an immigrant, brought over the Atlantic and then ejected into the serving class by her alcoholic father. She is uneducated and ignorant. And of course, she is a young woman, with all the vulnerability and unasked-for burdens that implies. Grace herself isn’t aware of the systems in which she’s caught up, at least initially; she gains that knowledge by way of Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), a vivacious, populist serving girl Grace befriends at her first household. Mary awakens Grace to the cruelty of men and oppression of the ruling class, only to fatally succumb to both. Even after her death, Mary continues to serve as an inspiration to Grace, who frequently attributes her most candid thoughts to her onetime companion—a habit that serves equally as a tribute and a deflection, giving cover to Grace’s true feelings. But Grace must do without Mary’s counsel at her next household, where a series of tragic events lands Grace in prison at just 16 years old.
Exactly what transpired at the country home of Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) is the question that brings Dr. Jordan to Grace’s penitentiary in the first place. Whatever the event, it ended in the deaths of Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin), the execution of roguish farmhand James McDermott (Kerr Logan), and Grace’s confinement, first to a mental institution, and then to a women’s prison in Kingston, Ontario. To get to the bottom of this mystery, Jordan engages Grace in an endearingly rudimentary form of psychoanalysis—he brings her a different fruit or vegetable each day in the hopes of stirring up unconscious associations; instead, she tells him how to roast a beet—at the behest of a reverend lobbying for Grace’s pardon. (The reverend is played by none other than legendary director David Cronenberg, plus some glued-on sideburns and minus the body horror. I told you this show was Canadian!)
Like the book it’s based on, much of the action in Alias Grace consists of repressed, polite people talking to each other in stately, tasteful rooms. Director Mary Harron enlivens these conversations with jarring cutaways to Grace’s traumatic memories, providing effective contrast with both Grace’s present environment and her friendly, ever-so-slightly combative demeanor. But Alias Grace sets out to be a more intellectual exploration of the motivations behind killings and the ways we treat those who commit them than the likes of Serial, The People v. O.J. Simpson, and My Favorite Murder.
Alias Grace is chiefly interested in how its protagonist’s image has been warped and reappropriated since those murders. To some, Grace is a crazed and wily seductress to be gossiped about and looked down upon; to others, she’s a blameless pawn to be pitied and taken on as a mercy project. All the while, her confession and testimony have become Grace’s public image, even as the real woman who gave them has aged more than a decade behind bars. Before her imprisonment, Grace was a naive child buffeted by the forces of necessity and fate. During it, she matures into someone much cannier and more introspective.
These shifts and questions are less gripping, on the surface, than the life-or-death stakes of The Handmaid’s Tale. Alias Grace is a buttoned-up costume drama whose budget is evidently closer to Poldark’s than The Crown’s; its public broadcasting side tends to win out over the big-spender internet company. Over time, however, Alias Grace reveals a preoccupation with the same disparities that The Handmaid’s Tale exaggerates into dystopia. Alias Grace is especially concerned with the specific kind of work women, especially lower-class women, are asked to perform, most of it in the home. A seemingly and pointedly prosaic detail like quilt design figures prominently in both the opening credits and the plot; Grace explains that the beds she used to make every day have seen as much death as any battlefield, and so has she. Later, Grace passes the time during her sessions with Dr. Jordan doing needlepoint. Harron’s camera is careful to linger on the sharp, potentially lethal tool Grace merely uses for housework—for now. The series supplements that concern with a broader interest in the relations between rich and poor, which inevitably plays a role in the murder of a wealthy landowner. (The murder itself takes place in the shadow of the Upper Canada Rebellion, an insurrection that pitted laymen against gentry.) But when it comes to matters like the casual exploitation of female servants in exchange for undelivered promises of marriage and the upward mobility that comes with it, poverty and womanhood grow inextricable.
Ultimately, Alias Grace is much more faithful to its source material than The Handmaid’s Tale, if only because the show is content to translate its inspiration without multi-season embellishment. The adaptive process isn’t entirely seamless; Jordan’s attraction to Grace, for example, is rushed into early episodes. But Alias Grace largely proves that Atwood’s ideas don’t need extension or even fantasy to break through to viewers. They’re powerful enough to stand on their own.