Com­pelling drama de­liv­ered with Grace

Sarah Pol­ley’s Mar­garet At­wood adap­ta­tion is def­i­nitely binge-wor­thy, writes

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It might not boast chill­ing par­al­lels to con­tem­po­rary Amer­ica or the com­pelling Elis­a­beth Moss, but there’s plenty to love about the lat­est Mar­garet At­wood adap­ta­tion to hit TV screens.

Based on the crit­i­cally-ac­claimed Cana­dian au­thor’s 1996 novel, Alias Grace (which be­gins streaming on Net­flix on Novem­ber 3) is a six-part pe­riod drama in­spired by the true story of Grace Marks, an Ir­ish im­mi­grant who was im­pris­oned in 1843 Canada for the mur­der of her em­ployer Thomas Kin­n­ear.

Adapted by Sarah Pol­ley ( Away With Her, Take This Waltz) and di­rected by Mary Har­ron ( Amer­i­can Psy­cho, The No­to­ri­ous Bet­tie Page), it unites sump­tu­ous pro­duc­tion val­ues, a ter­rific, eclec­tic cast (that in­cludes vet­eran Cana­dian di­rec­tor David Cro­nen­berg and At­wood her­self) and a tan­ta­lis­ing nar­ra­tive to cre­ate binge­wor­thy view­ing. The at­ten­tion to de­tail is top-notch (it feels like a cross be­tween the orig­i­nal Anne of Green Gables se­ries and the crit­i­cally ac­claimed BBC dra­mas of the 1990s), while each episode be­gins with a key, nar­ra­tively ap­pro­pri­ate quote from a poet of the time – Emily Dick­in­son in episode one, Henry Longfel­low in episode two.

Open­ing a decade af­ter Grace’s ( Royal Night Out’s Sarah Gadon in im­pres­sive form) in­car­cer­a­tion, Alias sees her at­tempt­ing to re­call the key events with the help of Dr Si­mon Jor­dan (Ed­ward Hol­croft). Act­ing as the au­di­ence’s cypher, he also raises the show’s cen­tral co­nun­drum, how could this seem­ingly mild-man­nered woman have car­ried out the deeds that she has been con­victed of?

We quickly learn of her mother’s death dur­ing the fam­ily’ pas­sage to Canada, her fa­ther’s vi­o­lent ten­den­cies and his force­ful ejec­tion of her onto the streets of Toronto to look for work.

Hap­pily it isn’t long be­fore she finds both em­ploy­ment and friend­ship in the Parkin­son house­hold, es­pe­cially with fel­low ser­vant Mary Whit­ney (a lu­mi­nous and scen­esteal­ing Re­becca Lid­di­ard). How­ever,

Ashe soon dis­cov­ers it isn’t as safe a place as it ini­tially seemed.

While this frac­tured nar­ra­tive some­times makes for slightly episodic view­ing, it’s hard to re­sist dip­ping in for just one more in­stall­ment, if only to es­tab­lish how Grace came to end up in Kingston Pen­i­ten­tiary or what key part our own Anna Paquin has to play as Nancy Mont­gomery.

In­ter­est­ingly, this isn’t the first time At­wood has writ­ten about the sub­ject. In 1970, she pub­lished The Jour­nals of Su­sanna Moodie, a se­ries of po­ems in­spired by the work of Su­sanna Moodie whose 19th Cen­tury Cana­dian top­ics in­cluded Grace Marks’ story. A Cana­dian TV movie fol­lowed in 1974. How­ever, it was only later that, hav­ing read more widely, At­wood be­gan to re­assess her opin­ion of Grace and doubt Moodie’s ac­counts of key events.

Pol­ley has been quoted as say­ing that Alias and At­wood’s Emmy Winning Hand­maid’s Tale feel like in­ter­est­ing coun­ter­points to one an­other.

‘‘ A Hand­maid’s Tale ob­vi­ously looks for­ward to what the world could be like if we’re not vig­i­lant, while Alias Grace looks back to where we have come from.’’

Taken as a dou­ble bill, they rep­re­sent around 13 hours of the finest tele­vi­sion drama this year.

Alias Grace is the story of con­victed mur­der­ess Grace Marks.

Re­becca Lid­di­ard, left, threat­ens to steal the show from Sarah Gadon in Alias Grace.

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