“I’d rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.”
That’s Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) at the start of Alias Grace, Netflix’s new adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel. Based on the actual 1843 murder of Thomas Kinnear (a lascivious Paul Gross) and his housekeeper, Nancy (Anna Paquin), the book explores the double homicide from Grace’s perspective, as she relates the events to a doctor, Simon (Edward Holcroft). From the opening scenes, Grace is keenly aware of the impact of one word over another, picking and choosing her speech as she goes. The killings were notorious at the time, sparking debate about Grace’s complicity, morality and identity – and Alias Grace is a dizzying, gripping act of a woman reclaiming her story to her own ends.
It’s the kind of story that you might think unsuitable for the screen: it largely consists of two people sitting in a room talking. But in a year that has also given us Hulu’s remarkable The Handmaid’s Tale, Mary Harron’s take on Atwood’s text is just as compelling and relevant. Where the former is intensely oppressive and stylised, Alias Grace is quiet and delicate, but hauntingly tense; both find their strength in the magnetic presence of their lead women.
Sarah Gadon is superb, constantly encapsulating the endless contradictions of her character. She’s an outsider and an immigrant, a servant who is at the bottom rung of society, but she’s also a strange form of celebrity, a notorious criminal who is being asked to divulge her tale: she’s vulnerable, but, in a way, she holds all the power. “Would you like to crack open a window?” she asks Simon, halfway through their conversation, changing the topic while reminding him of the effect her gruesome words are having. “Sorry doctor, are we not done?” she ventures later, after a heavy period of questioning. Both times, he acquiesces.
Gadon continues that same guarded, guileful performance into the flashbacks that build up to the murders: Grace is almost impossible to read, her face enigmatic and closed, her eyes sympathetic. At the same time, she’s repeatedly presented as a victim, abused and exploited by the men around her at every stage of life. “I could tell you what he had in mind,” she says of one encounter, with a biting wit and a tired familiarity. “And it was not original.”
Screenwriter Sarah Polley is a perfect fit for the material: transposing Alice Munro’s heartbreaking short story Away from Her to the screen back in 2006, she’s an expert at expressing inner emotions through dialogue and action, finding nuance in gestures, speech and pacing. Here, Polley’s screenplay balances Grace’s likeable resilience, dark humour and apparent honesty with chilling reminders of why we’re listening to her in the first place. “It was strange to think that in nine months,” she begins one episode with an unsettling indifference, “I would be the only one of them left alive. But at the time I had no particular feeling about it; I just wanted a glass of water.” It’s not until halfway through the six episodes that we start to get a real glimpse of the grim aftermath of the homicide; by that time, we’re already firmly in Grace’s grip.
Harron’s direction is just as subtle, as the camera glides through the fateful house with a graceful, eerie quality. The pastel colours of the period are almost too sanitised, but the visuals are steeped in Grace’s own recollection, which feels entirely in control. At times, we’re slyly won over by a confidence that Simon isn’t given: “Just because you pestered me for everything, there was no reason for me to tell you,” she remarks in a private voiceover just for us, as she goes into details of what she does in a privy – simultaneously building historical detail and trust with her audience.
Under Grace’s influence, the show presents the prologue to these shocking deaths in a way that feels almost friendly and cosy. Zachary Levi as the smooth-tongued Jeremiah and Rebecca Liddiard as her fiercely political friend, Mary, could almost come from a different series, bringing charm, passion and friendship to the costume drama. But the cast never quite let you settle into the comfortable familiarity of that genre, from Kerr Logan’s romantic interest, James McDemott, whom we know will either collude in or execute the killings, to Anna Paquin’s scene-stealing turn as Grace’s new boss, Nancy, who quickly switches from kind and welcoming to cruel and dismissive. Harron intercuts these exchanges with brief bursts of violence, or shots of the door to the cellar where the deaths will eventually take place; if Netflix’s Anne with an E (another Canadian co-production) brought darkness to that uplifting text, Alias Grace provocatively brings a lightness to mask the horror.
That constant juxtaposition only reinforces the ambiguity of our lead, who may or may not be guilty as charged – nobody around Dr. Jordan can quite agree – and the way Alias Grace retains that up until the end of the series is a masterful achievement. Every episode ends with Anne Briggs’ mournful, cautionary ballad, Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, not even letting us find closure in the end credits, while there’s a constant sense of male scrutiny and authority that seeps out through the compassionate but condescending Simon, not to mention the way that Grace becomes an enemy of Nancy, just because Kinnear turns his lustful gaze upon her. If The Handmaid’s Tale was striking in how relevant Atwood’s criticisms remained in 2017, Alias Grace only confirms the timelessness of a society stacked against women. There’s a lingering irony to the way that Grace’s story is only really being heard because a man is deigning to listen and amplify it with a call of possible innocence – the period drama equivalent of hepeating. But Grace’s guilt becomes irrelevant long before the final chapter: this is a gripping piece of storytelling about storytelling itself, as she takes back control of her narrative for six spellbinding hours. No matter who’s listening, their opinion or reaction doesn’t matter: by the time she’s done, Grace Marks’ story is all her own.
Alias Grace is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.