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