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WRITTEN BY Sarah Polley
CAST Sarah Gadon, Edward Holcroft, Zachary Levi, David Cronenberg
PLOT Dr Jordan (Holcroft) arrives in 1850s Toronto to interview convicted murderer Grace Marks (Gadon). As she reveals her life before the incident, he struggles to reconcile this apparently meek woman with her alleged crimes.
AFTER LAST MONTH’S Mindhunters, Netflix continues its (unofficial) ‘Talking With Murderers’ season with an adaptation of
Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. Once again, a notorious convicted killer is examined by a psychologist anxious to unravel their mystery, but it’s unclear whether Grace is even guilty, to what extent, and whether she was actually justified in any case.
Sarah Gadon plays Grace Marks, a (real-life) poor Irish immigrant to Canada in the 1840s who escapes her abusive father to work as a domestic servant. Even in her young teens, Grace learns that her life is disposable, that she sits at the bottom of a social hierarchy and always will. For a bright, perceptive girl it feels profoundly unjust, a sense that’s only sharpened by the revolutionary leanings of her friend and fellow servant Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard). When Mary is taken from her, Grace’s anger grows until it reaches a peak in her next job, under capricious housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin) and employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross).
Montgomery and Kinnear wind up dead, and Grace’s fellow employee James Mcdermott (Kerr Logan) hangs for it, shouting out that it was all Grace’s idea. She is imprisoned for life, briefly committed to an asylum, and eventually allowed to work on day release at the governor’s mansion, where a group of do-gooders take up her cause and bring in Dr Simon Jordan (Holcroft) to examine her and find grounds for a pardon.
Written for the screen by Away From Her’s Sarah Polley, directed by American Psycho’s Mary Harron and featuring David Cronenberg in a small role, this offers a showcase for the best of Canada throughout. But it rests most obviously on the shoulders of Gadon, whose Grace is in almost every scene. She not only masters the difficult Northern Irish accent, but brings Atwood’s complicated, internal protagonist to blistering life. Grace is a mirror to those around her, for the men who see their desires reflected endlessly in her clear gaze and seem uncomfortably fascinated by her suffering. Her body language is meek, controlled and solemnly appropriate for a convict who’s remorseful for her failings but innocent of her worst accusations. But there’s a burning, broiling anger underneath, and a sharp intelligence in her unvoiced thoughts. Grace will — as she should — divide audiences.
Coming so soon after The Handmaid’s Tale, there will inevitably be comparisons to Atwood’s more famous work. But for the most part Alias Grace measures up. There’s a potentially difficult conceit where Grace both relates her history to Jordan and narrates certain thoughts she’s holding back internally, but thanks to nimble direction and Gadon herself it’s generally clear which is which. The Handmaid’s Tale has the darker thrill of something like plausibility in the modern world, while Alias Grace takes place in the past. Still, it tells the same story of women’s suffering under an unjust system, and Atwood (and Polley, and Harron) flawlessly nails the pernicious, corrosive effects of patriarchy on women’s choices. Grace’s sex and class condemned her to a life of drudgery long before her prison sentence. She is poor, an immigrant, and most of all a woman, and that reduces her freedom to almost nothing. The injustice of it rankles Grace, and by the end it you’ll be seething too.
VERDICT A righteous howl against injustice and a fascinating ‘did-she-do-it?’, this avoids easy answers and ensures you’ll not look at an upstairs-downstairs drama the same way again.
Blue is the new black.