Al­ready binge-watched The Hand­maid’s Tale? Thank­fully, 2017 of­fers an­other Mar­garet At­wood pro­duc­tion to en­joy with the CBC adap­ta­tion of her clas­sic Alias Grace. Here, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer and writer Sarah Pol­ley and direc­tor Mary Har­ron speak about this p

Canadian Living - - Contents - TEXT BRIONY SMITH

Set your DVRS for the CBC adap­ta­tion of Mar­garet At­wood’s Cana­dian clas­sic Alias Grace

ALIAS GRACE opens on the face of its hero­ine, a con­victed mur­derer. After 15 years of in­car­cer­a­tion, Grace Marks is now frog-marched to the pri­son gov­er­nor’s man­sion ev­ery day, where she spends her af­ter­noons clean­ing. Grace pauses dur­ing her work, wide eyes fill­ing the screen, as her voice-over ticks off the per­sonas that peo­ple im­pose on her: Is she a heart­less killer? An in­no­cent be­trayed? Her face slips from sly to serene to stern. With this, the minis­eries—adapted from Mar­garet At­wood’s 1996 work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion set in Kingston, Ont., it­self based on the true story of an im­mi­grant maid con­victed in 1843 of killing her em­ployer and his mistress—an­nounces that it will crack open the com­plex­ity and cru­elty of women’s lives just as skil­fully as At­wood’s beloved novel.

The sem­i­nal text is in very good hands. Ac­com­plished direc­tor and ac­tor Sarah Pol­ley has been hus­tling to get this minis­eries made for the past two decades—ever since her agent gave her the book when she was 17. Though Pol­ley failed to se­cure the rights back then, she got them when she turned 30, and now, eight years later, Alias Grace is fi­nally hit­ting the screen, air­ing on CBC Sept. 25 and head­ing to Net­flix Canada in 2018.

Pol­ley called on direc­tor Mary Har­ron (of Amer­i­can Psy­cho fame) to helm all six episodes. Har­ron, too, was in­cul­cated with

At­wood from an early age; she dis­cov­ered the au­thor in col­lege when she found that her older sis­ter and her friends were read­ing The Ed­i­ble Woman. “[At­wood’s work] had a big ef­fect on us. In the ’70s, we were dis­cov­er­ing fem­i­nism, so I came of age with those books,” says Har­ron. “They had an im­pact on me.”

Pol­ley is also an At­wood fan, and was det­er­mined to do jus­tice to the writer’s nu­anced char­ac­ters. “She’s able to cap­ture the in­ner work­ings and mo­ti­va­tions of peo­ple in a way that’s pierc­ing and allsee­ing,” says Pol­ley. “She gives read­ers X-ray vi­sion into her char­ac­ters’ minds.”

That’s why Pol­ley wove so much of the book’s orig­i­nal di­a­logue into the script. Next, she looked home­ward for True North ta­lent, such as Sarah Gadon (as Grace Marks), Anna Paquin and Paul Gross (who play Grace’s vic­tims) and even David Cro­nen­berg, who cameos at the be­gin­ning as the rev­erend who calls upon Dr. Jor­dan, a dash­ing young doc­tor (played by BBC babe Ed­ward Hol­croft of Wolf Hall), to as­sess if Grace is a good can­di­date for re­lease after a decade and a half in pri­son.

The se­ries switches be­tween Grace and Dr. Jor­dan’s ten­sion-filled meet­ings in the gov­er­nor’s fancy manse and flash­backs of Grace’s life lead­ing up to the crime. There’s her stom­ach-churn­ing boat jour­ney to Canada from Ire­land, dur­ing which her mother is one of the many to per­ish in the fetid con­di­tions be­low deck, scenes truly grotesque in their con­jur­ing of a heav­ing, claus­tro­pho­bic night-mare. There’s Grace’s des­per­ate scrab­ble to support her sib­lings after her fa­ther proves not only use­less but also abu­sive, forc­ing her to grind out a liv­ing as a near-in­den­tured ser­vant to a suc­ces­sion of wealthy fam­i­lies. “If The Hand­maid’s Tale looks ahead to what life could be for women, Alias Grace looks back at what it was for women,” says Pol­ley.

The show has an eerie grey un­der­tone, as if shot through a piece of muslin; it’s the per­fect hue for the crush­ing monotony and hard labour of Grace’s life as an Ir­ish im­mi­grant in 1859 Canada, an ex­is­tence that Pol­ley and Har­ron show­case in con­trast­ing in­te­ri­ors: the ser­vants’ spare quar­ters and the dusty set­tle­ments look even more stark against the ex­trav­a­gant chintz-crammed draw­ing rooms of the wealthy that Grace cleans and cleans.

Her gen­der and poverty af­ford her lit­tle choice in ca­reer—or much else. “The women are all trapped, up­per class and lower,” says Har­ron. “Ev­ery­one’s stuck in their roles; there are very few op­por­tu­ni­ties in that so­ci­ety.” Per­haps, stranded in the wilds of mud-splat­tered colo­nial Kingston, mur­der is Grace’s only way to as­sert any con­trol at all.

Nine­teenth-cen­tury Kingston is the lat­est lo­ca­tion to star in Pol­ley’s films. Set­ting is a

fre­quent char­ac­ter in her work, from the stark On­tario win­ter­scape of Away From Her to Toronto’s lush sum­mer nights in Take This Waltz. This, she says, is how her Cana­di­an­ness man­i­fests it­self most in her films. “A sense of place has been re­ally im­por­tant to me, as well as cap­tur­ing the spe­cific na­ture of my ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing here,” she says.

“Marks’s court case was re­ally the O.J. Simp­son trial of its time,” says Pol­ley, point­ing out that the dif­fer­ent ways Grace was viewed dur­ing the sen­sa­tional trial was informed by the po­lit­i­cal furor of the day, à la how opin­ions on Simp­son’s guilt of­ten hinged on race and class. In Grace’s case, the English gen­try wanted to see her hang, while her fel­low poor Scots and Ir­ish be­lieved she was in­no­cent. She es­caped the death sen­tence, but she then de­scended into the hellscape of what Har­ron de­scribes as colo­nial Canada’s “very, very harsh pe­nal sys­tem.” Pol­ley and Har­ron don’t flinch in por­tray­ing the tor­tures she un­der­went, as Grace not only suf­fers sex­ual as­sault and beat­ings but must also deal with con­stant flash­backs to her trau­mas, the au­di­ence shak­ing along with her at the jagged mem­o­ries of strug­gling at the hands of preda­tory guards.

Pol­ley and Har­ron were de­ter­mined to re­veal in Alias Grace the grimmest de­tails of colo­nial women’s lives, whether it was en­dur­ing the ter­rors of im­mi­gra­tion or the pain of an il­le­gal abor­tion. “That was very con­scious,” Har­ron says, re­call­ing film­ing the scene where Grace dis­cov­ers the gory after­math of her friend’s back-par­lour pro­ce­dure. “We wanted to show what went on. It’s not go­ing to be an ide­al­ized ver­sion.” Star Sarah Gadon even once glee­fully im­i­tated Har­ron on set, cry­ing, “More blood! We need more blood!” Alias Grace serves as an im­por­tant re­minder of how re­cent it was in Canada “that women were chat­tel and com­pletely dis­pos­able, and where vi­o­lence was a com­pletely nor­mal part of ev­ery­day life,” says Pol­ley. “And it still is for many women in many parts of the world.”

There are some small mo­ments of joy in the minis­eries, how­ever, es­pe­cially when fe­male friends wrest a few sec­onds of em­pow­er­ment from an ex­is­tence al­most en­tirely con­trolled by men, whether it’s toss­ing ap­ple peels over their shoul­ders to fore­tell the ini­tials of their fu­ture love or walk­ing arm in arm to the abor­tion­ist. Be­tween these tiny tri­umphs and ev­ery­thing Grace Marks en­dures, Alias Grace paints Grace’s life in full and also a rich por­trait of wom­an­hood it­self. “Of­ten, when I read Mar­garet At­wood or hear her speak, I find my­self think­ing, Thank God she said that, as if I could have said the same thing,” says Re­becca Lid­di­ard, who plays Grace’s best friend, the spir­ited ser­vant Mary. “But I’m no writer or rene­gade—most of us aren’t—and so I take com­fort in At­wood’s voice, which is al­ways stead­fast, in­tel­li­gent, fe­male, con­tentious, colour­ful. I trust her as a spokesper­son for me as a Cana­dian woman in the larger world.”

TOP RIGHT Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks.

RIGHT Direc­tor Mary Har­ron on set with Paul Gross and Sarah Gadon.

ABOVE Sarah Pol­ley, who wrote the script adap­ta­tion of Alias Grace, poses with Mar­garet At­wood, the book’s au­thor.

ABOVE Anna Paquin as Nancy Mont­gomery and Paul Gross as Thomas Kin­n­ear.

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