The magnificence of Mary Harron and Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel Alias Grace is multifaceted. Over six episodes crafted with the rich complexity of the novel, “celebrated murderess” Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), tells her own story, Scheherazade-style, to a doctor (Edward Holcroft) with the power to arrange for her pardon. It’s a superb entertainment, gripping and slippery, suspenseful right up until its final moments, that very gripping-ness itself urgently thematic: Just as the creators have to entice us to keep us watching, Grace has to keep the doctor fascinated, charmed, even. Harron, the director, cuts several times an episode to his eyes as Grace lays bare, with precise yet unfussy language, the hardships a female servant (and later a convicted killer) faced in mid-19th-century Canada.
The more that handymen and masters of the house paw at her, the more she explains that “There are many dangerous things that take place in a bed,” the more the doctor seems to lean in, enchanted. He’s liberal-minded enough to be upset at hearing about what women endure every day, but not enough that he’d ever have noticed this himself, or thought to do anything about it. And there’s no doubt that he’s turned on by her account, by the thought of what this lissome beauty has lived through, by his certainty that he would have been — and still could be — better to her.
In short, he watches Grace the way many men will watch Alias Grace or Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, also based on an Atwood novel but not as fully realized a work of art as what Harron and Polley have wrought. He watches while knowing that, in his own life, he probably could have done more — and maybe he shouldn’t be too into this.
Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page), working from a script by Polley (the writer and director of Away From Her, Take This Waltz and Stories We Tell), offers a fuller evocation of what it might have been like actually to have lived in the past than what TV or movies usually bother with. Besides the carefully appointed larders and the vital attention paid to needlework and quilting, note how, in Alias Grace’s Toronto and countryside, the abundant flies bother nobody, that even a doctor neglects to wash his hands after plucking the gizzard from a chicken and how a suffocating decorum prohibits people – especially women – from speaking the plain truth about the often brutal facts of life. “They took liberties, sir,” Grace says, with careful understatement, of the staff at the asylum.
Note, too, how how often, in this faithful adaptation of a novel from two decades back, reimagining murders that scandalized the provinces in 1846, those facts of life echo today — right now. A code of silence still protects predatory men; what seems timely, here, is in fact eternal, unless we stop it in our own lifetimes.
That silence is complex. When the doctor presses her, in a later episode, about the specifics of those liberties taken at the asylum, Grace balks at the question. She has prided herself on telling her story with “vividness and mass of circumstantial detail,” but even a murderess fears too much for her reputation to admit to having lived through sexual assault.
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At least, that’s what Grace wants him to think. It’s one of the great pleasures of the series to attempt to tease out just what Grace is feeling at any moment. She admits herself, in narration, that she lies sometimes to the doctor, that she arranges the facts of her case to interest him. By not answering the question, she forces him to face his own impassioned interest in the matter — and also to apologize to her for his own indelicacy. Alias Grace is at its heart always about storytelling, role-playing, the secret ways that women tell unmentionable truths: Grace does this through her embroidery, communicating with a quilt what has happened in a bed, but also through her pointed omissions, her habit of getting him to consider those “things they don’t print in the papers.”
For all its quiet fury, Harron and Polley’s Alias Grace is above all else a superior dramatic mystery, one whose surprises truly jolt and whose pieces, in the end, snap satisfyingly together. It’s mostly well acted, with the excellent Gadon playing Grace in a variety of ages and perspectives: She’s 30ish in the present-day scenes, telling the story, but in her mid-teens in the flashbacks, a somewhat naive girl hardened after years of abuse but still thrilled over fireflies and the chance to giggle with her more experienced friend (Rebecca Liddiard). Or that’s how she presents herself; occasionally, we see young Grace from the point of view of people testifying against her. Anna Paquin is arrestingly inconstant as a housemaid with more power than Grace, all smiles one moment and perverse cruelty the next; and Zachary Levi brightens an otherwise dark narrative as a traveling peddler who tries to sell young Grace on something too frightening for her even to envision – freedom.
Polley’s script dips often into Atwood’s prose, so this Grace speaks with rare power and sharpness, her phrasing shaped by a lifetime of scripture. Harron always shows us things worth regarding, and is especially adept at making toil interesting. Just as 12 Years a Slave performed the public service of helping us imagine the day-to-day terror of plantation life, Alias Grace captures the grind of a house servant, churning butter, husking peas, scrubbing nightclothes, tending to the business of the privy. The violence comes in garish flashes, never romanticized or celebrated, more the troubled memory of the act than the fully staged act itself. The lingering image of these five hours of television is Gadon’s face, so pale you can see capillaries beneath the eyelids, as her Grace tells the doctor about the ways that women must forever navigate around the men in their lives — the truths he should have known already.
Alias Grace streams on Netflix.