The bon­nets look back

It has taken Sarah Pol­ley two decades to bring Mar­garet At­wood’s Alias Grace to life. dis­cov­ers why.

The Press - The Box - - COVER STORY -

Sarah Pol­ley says it was ‘‘strange and amaz­ing’’ that A Hand­maid’s Tale and Alias Grace were both shoot­ing in Toronto at the same time.

Both shows are based on Mar­garet At­wood nov­els and bon­nets fea­ture in both. In the dystopian fu­ture of Hand­maid’s Tale, women en­slaved for breed­ing pur­poses are en­cased in over-sized white bon­nets, while the women in Alias Grace, set in the mid-1800s, wear smaller ones. Pol­ley, writer and pro­ducer of Alias Grace, sees it as a timely co­in­ci­dence.

‘‘ 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, and I think that’s re­ally im­por­tant thing to have the con­text of his­tory when think­ing about the fu­ture when you’re in a pre­car­i­ous time po­lit­i­cally,’’ says Pol­ley.

The Cana­dian writer-di­rec­torac­tress first read­Alias Grace, which started streaming on Net­flix on Fri­day, when she was a teen more than 20 years ago. The novel draws on the true story of Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a 19th-cen­tury Ir­ish im­mi­grant and ser­vant con­victed as a teen of help­ing mur­der her boss and his house­keeper/lover (Anna Paquin).

Was she a killer, a dupe, a proper woman or a some­thing else? Was she clever, du­bi­ous, ha­rassed, be­guil­ing, a vic­tim of the rich, or try­ing to sur­vive?

‘‘I thought it was the most com­plex, com­pli­cated, fas­ci­nat­ing and enig­matic por­trayal of a woman I’d ever seen,’’ says Pol­ley, 38. ‘‘She’s the most ex­treme char­ac­ter – man or woman – be­cause it can never get to the bot­tom of her. Once you think you have a hold on her, the rug is pulled out from un­der you.’’

At­wood turned down Pol­ley’s first pro­posal to buy the rights to Grace. Then, she was best known as a child star on the Dis­ney Chan­nel’s Road to Avon­lea but was think­ing of be­ing on the other side of the cam­era. That led to her first fea­ture, 2008’s Away From Her. The film brought an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for her, and her adap­ta­tion of the Alice Munro story, as well as one for its star, Julie Christie.

Pol­ley fol­lowed it up with Take This Waltz and the 2012 docu­d­rama Sto­ries We Tell, a per­sonal his­tory that dra­mat­i­cally im­pacted her fam­ily.

‘‘I think Alias Grace opened up this con­ver­sa­tion in my own mind about truth – if we can ever get to it in the past and can we ever know some­one,’’ she says. ‘‘Those ques­tions re­ally ended up form­ing the work that I have been do­ing.’’

When the rights to the novel be­came open in 2012, At­wood was more re­cep­tive. The two ini­tially met for about six hours, and the nov­el­ist showed her the his­tor­i­cal re­search she had done. As the process went along, Pol­ley would run the dif­fer­ent drafts of the script by At­wood.

‘‘I don’t think I will ever write some­thing as hard as it again,’’ Pol­ley says. ‘‘I re­mem­ber, when I was fin­ished, think­ing how much eas­ier it was writ­ing a screen­play. Part of it was keep­ing track of which Grace we are deal­ing with, be­cause she could be so many dif­fer­ent peo­ple.’’

The frame­work to the story is Grace telling her ver­sion of what hap­pened to an ‘‘alienist’’, a type of early psy­chol­o­gist, some 15 years af­ter the mur­ders in the hopes of get­ting a par­don. By then, much had been writ­ten about the case, which in­cluded sen­sa­tional ‘‘con­fes­sions’’, but Grace doesn’t seem to be the woman peo­ple think she is.

The film­maker also con­sulted with the 77-year-old nov­el­ist – who has a cameo as a judg­men­tal church­goer – on all the im­por­tant de­ci­sions in the mak­ing of the lim­ited se­ries.

‘‘The thing about her is that she re­ally un­der­stands film,’’ says Pol­ley. ‘‘She sees a ton of film and tele­vi­sion. So you’re able to talk to her, not as just a writer of the novel, but as some­one who re­ally has a sense of what would work and what doesn’t.’’

In­stead of di­rect­ing the project her­self, Pol­ley brought in Mary Har­ron, who was work­ing on episodic TV and di­rected films like I Shot Andy Warhol, The No­to­ri­ous Bet­tie Page and Amer­i­can Psy­cho.

‘‘Half­way through writ­ing Alias Grace, I felt that it be­longed to an­other film­maker and I re­ally wanted Mary’s voice,’’ says Pol­ley. ‘‘There is an in­ten­sity and ruth­less­ness in her as a film­maker, and I thought it would be such an in­ter­est­ing com­bi­na­tion with Mar­garet’s work.’’

Pol­ley says she loves work­ing in the longer form of tele­vi­sion.

‘‘I didn’t imag­ine I would ever go into tele­vi­sion. I grew up in tele­vi­sion. I had spent a lot of my life try­ing to es­cape it,’’ says Pol­ley, who be­gan act­ing, aged 6, on TV.

In the wake of the Har­vey We­in­stein sex­ual as­sault al­le­ga­tions, shows like like Hand­maid’s Tale, which won eight Em­mys, and Alias Grace take on re­newed rel­e­vance.

‘‘For middle- and up­per-class women life looks much dif­fer­ent than it did when Grace was a do­mes­tic ser­vant in the 1800s fresh off the boat from Ire­land,’’ ob­serves Pol­ley. ‘‘But for a lot of women – even in North Amer­ica to­day – her life rings fa­mil­iar. We have made a lot of progress on cer­tain lev­els, but we haven’t made them across the board. It’s some­thing we have to be re­ally vig­i­lant about.’’ – TNS

AAlias Grace is streaming on Net­flix now.

Sarah Gadon plays the trou­bled Grace Marks in Net­flix’s new Mar­garet At­wood pe­riod drama, Alias Grace.

Kiwi ac­tress Anna Paquin plays Nancy Mont­gomery in Alias Grace.

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