Empire (Australasia) - - Review - HE­LEN O’HARA


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.

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