Compelling drama delivered with Grace
Sarah Polley’s Margaret Atwood adaptation is definitely binge-worthy, writes
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.