This has been quite a year for Margaret Atwood adaptations. 2017 has already given us The Handmaid’s Tale, which tapped into an especially juicy, Zeitgeisty vein and won the Emmy Award for outstanding drama. Then, of course, there’s been real life, which has often felt like an ongoing Margaret Atwood adaptation, complete with a third act in which women (and men) use their voices to speak out against oppression and abuse.
Now there’s Alias Grace, the Netflix limited series based on Atwood’s 1996 novel about Grace Marks, a 19th-century Irish-Canadian servant who allegedly helped murder the housemaid and owner of the farm where she worked. Like the book, a fictionalized examination of an 1843 homicide case, the six-episode drama peers into Grace’s history and the events that led to the deaths of Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin) and Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) through the prism of ongoing sessions between Grace (Sarah Gadon of 11.22.63 and Happy Town) and Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft of the Kingsman movies), a therapist hired by a group of citizens pushing for a pardon and prison release for Grace.
Alias Grace, which arrives Friday on Netflix after a September debut on Canada’s CBC, has some obvious things in common with The Handmaid’s Tale. Like the Hulu series, it features revelatory voice-over narration from its protagonist, lots of characters wearing bonnets, and constant reminders of the culturally endemic misogyny that keeps women silent and in subservient position. In the same way that Handmaid’s did, it also feels incredibly timely.
The issues that Alias Grace addresses — sexual abuse, the advantages that come from white male privilege, society’s tendency to mistrust female stories, the ways in which men in positions of authority take advantage of and objectify women — are top of mind right now, thanks to the flood of victims who have emerged in recent weeks to out powerful men as abusers and/or harassers. To call this series “of the moment” feels right. But it’s also incredibly depressing to do so. Acknowledging that Alias Grace taps into the Zeitgeist is essentially admitting that North American society in 2017 still has a lot in common with the North America of the mid-to-late 1800s.
While the two shows overlap in terms of subject matter and topicality, Alias Grace is tonally quite different from that other take on Atwood. Where The Handmaid’s Tale has a propulsive sense of urgency and a tendency to aggressively hammer home its points, Alias Grace operates on a much more subtle, hushed frequency. Written by actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron of American Psycho and Notorious Bettie Page fame, the series takes its time to unfold and emphasizes details so minute that they become significant, from a slug oozing through a garden to Grace’s hands to fastidiously threading needles while she verbally sews together her life story for Dr. Jordan. This is a story about women who have often felt suffocated, told by women who have been given the liberty to represent those experiences using specifically feminine language.
Alias Grace doesn’t drag viewers into that story so much as hypnotize them, using Grace’s flashes of memory in conjunction with the richly conjured recollections shared with Dr. Jordan to immerse us in the seemingly credible moments surrounding her mother’s death, her friendship with a vibrant fellow servant named Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), and her life at Kinnear’s farm, where Nancy’s dark moods foster enough strong resentment in both Grace and surly fellow worker James McDermott (Kerr Logan) to put killing on their minds.
The question that faces Jordan — and by extension, us — is how much of what Grace says can be believed. “She could be a true amnesiac,” the therapist says at one point, while discussing her tendency to block out certain key memories. “Or she could be simply guilty. She could be insane with the devious plausibility of the experienced maniac.” That sense of uncertainty makes Alias Grace hard to tear one’s self away from, and also, cleverly, makes us struggle with how we choose to judge this woman with a difficult past. When we assume that Grace is intentionally manipulating those around her, is that because we know she’s already been convicted of a crime, because her story has holes in it, or because we’ve been trained to think that women are programmed to engage in seductive deceit?
Gadon does a superb job of leaning into that uncertainty. Her facial expressions assume a matter-of-fact blankness that enables others to project their own perceptions directly onto Grace. In the flashbacks, she is naïve and innocent, but also smart and quite capable of taking care of herself — contradictory traits that don’t seem so contradictory the way Gadon evokes them. The actress does her most chilling work, though, in the final episode, when yet another aspect of Grace’s personality is revealed.
Solid work is also done by the rest of the cast, including the David Duchovny–esque Holcroft, who projects constant calm while clearly crumbling; a charismatic Zachary Levi as Grace’s friend, Jeremiah; and Paquin, who switches from sunshine to shadow like an oil lamp switching from on to off. (Atwood also makes a brief cameo appearance in a scene that takes place in a church. One more in another adaptation of her work, and she will officially become the Stan Lee of Peak TV.)
Ultimately, what makes Alias Grace so compelling is Grace herself, and the way her complicated life speaks to how murky the truth can become when bias, skepticism, and basic human instinct get twisted up in knots that can’t be untangled. Those are knots that we’re still trying to pull apart, 174 years after the real Grace Marks first became known for being a murderess.