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Netflix's Alias Grace adapts Margaret Atwood in austere, lovely, ultra-Canadian fashion

The six-part series ably realizes one of the author’s least adaptable novels.

Alias Grace
Sarah Gadon stars as convicted (and later pardoned) murderer Grace Marks in Alias Grace.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Alias Grace is a handsomely produced, beautifully performed series, boasting superb writing and direction, that nonetheless holds the audience at arm’s length. I liked it, but didn’t love it, and I’m hard-pressed to explain why it didn’t cross that gap for me.

The new six-part Netflix miniseries — with each part mercifully clocking in right around 45 minutes, a remnant of the project’s status as a co-production with Canada’s CBC — adapts one of author Margaret Atwood’s most interior novels, which interrogates the motives and drives behind the very real Grace Marks, a servant convicted of conspiring to murder her employer and his housekeeper in 1843 Upper Canada (what is now southern Ontario). Her co-conspirator, James McDermott, was executed, but Marks was eventually pardoned, and she later immigrated to the United States.

Whether Marks was an eager participant in the murders or an unknowing accessory remains a topic of debate, not just for its lurid true crime trappings but also for how Marks’s predicament underlines both the role of women and the class divide in polite 1840s society. It’s these trappings that Atwood seized on for her 1996 book, which rockets in and around Marks’s consciousness, cutting across time and space to depict the ways in which her own brain seems to hide the facts of the crime from her.

In some ways, Alias Grace is Atwood’s ultimate statement about how men can never understand women so long as they believe themselves superior to them. It features a practitioner of an early form of psychology who attempts to plumb the depths of Grace’s subconscious but can’t seem to understand that much of her story rests on her status as a second-class citizen, because he lacks the ability to question a social order that keeps him in a position of power.

Those ideas survive more or less intact in the series, leaving adapter Sarah Polley, lead star Sarah Gadon, and director Mary Harron confronting a very old problem: How do you put the contents of somebody’s head onscreen?

Answer: sometimes, you don’t

Alias Grace’s greatest asset is the way it depicts Grace Marks’s thought processes. The miniseries opens with a quick series of flashes to events that will come to make sense to viewers the longer they watch. It’s not exactly a new idea for starting a project about a character with a scattered consciousness, but it neatly sets up a miniseries where Grace proves as evasive to viewers as she does to Dr. Simon Jordan, her would-be psychological evaluator.

The series so firmly situates itself in Grace’s brain that even when it’s telling her story in more or less chronological order, quick flashes to the brutality that she will be privy to suggest the way that she, too, is running away from something inside of herself. The series gradually uncovers what amounts to a flashy psychiatric diagnosis for the character (though the series invites viewers to take said diagnosis with a grain of salt). But it always feels rooted in the show’s portrayal both of Grace’s very specific situation and the situations of poor women (and, really, just women) more generally in the society Grace lives in.

The show’s fidelity to piecing together Grace’s patchwork interior is strained in places — a dream sequence in episode four ends up feeling a little goofy, due to what seems like a limited budget — but it also lends the season’s final two hours, which depict the murder and its aftermath, a raw power that results from seeing how all the pieces fit together. Like the quilts Grace makes, there is a whole here that can’t always be observed from the scraps that will come together to form it.

Alias Grace
The miniseries is beautifully shot.

Polley’s script is sturdy, occasionally leaning too heavily on underlining Atwood’s themes to make sure they come across when viewers don’t have constant access to Grace’s inner monologue. But it’s Harron’s direction and Gadon’s performance that truly drive the work. Harron often shoots Gadon in disorienting close-ups that are almost centered but not quite, leaving viewers feeling slightly off-kilter, and Gadon uses her gigantic eyes to draw us in to these shots, before something — perhaps cold, perhaps alienated — flashes in them and warns us off.

And Harron’s camerawork is woozy throughout, without resorting to tired, tilted angles or gimmicky shots. She returns, again and again, to the cellar where James and Grace tossed one of the bodies, and the stairs loom ominously every time, until it feels like we might pitch forward and tumble down them too.

Harron is probably best known for American Psycho, a film that tore into the contradictions of 1980s capitalism with gusto. Alias Grace functions as an eerie companion piece to that film, telling the story of another maybe-murderer whose darkness ripples underneath a society that nods toward propriety without ever acknowledging its own complicity in crimes committed by the disadvantaged.

Yet this also means Alias Grace remains a touch restrained, a little too hemmed in by its costume drama trappings. It’s never as deeply felt as it perhaps needs to be, and the moment when the murders finally arrive doesn’t carry the catharsis that might have lent everything preceding them even more impact, especially when it comes to Dr. Jordan, played by Edward Holcroft with a slightly distant air that keeps him from fully engaging. (That said, the finale is a lovely piece of television that gracefully closes the story without pushing too hard.)

The constant narration on Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale — the year’s other high-profile Atwood adaptation — can be overdone, but it gives the whole series an emotional grounding that leads to multiple moments where the truth of its repressive society breaks through. Alias Grace’s characters, by contrast, are so boxed in by the world they inhabit that it’s impossible to imagine even the interior exit routes and tiny rebellions that Handmaid’s June uses to survive.

But I find it impossible to escape the thought that perhaps Alias Grace is functioning exactly as intended, and that I, a straight white man, am never quite going to understand the depths of oppression forced upon Grace Marks in any way other than academic. Alias Grace seems restrained because other stories like it are deeply restrained.

But something passionate and dark burbles inside of it, inviting those who can hear it to hum along and those of us who can’t quite tune in to it to sit opposite Grace, forever trying to find a way into her head.

Alias Grace is streaming on Netflix.