It would be easy to say that Netflix is attempting to cash in by adapting Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace for TV. After Channel 4 aired the critically acclaimed The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Atwood’s novel of the same name, studio executives across the world must be flicking through her timely prose in an attempt to find the next big attention-grabbing series. But Netflix also already makes daring and thought-provoking drama and Atwood’s novels are attention-grabbing and critically acclaimed for a reason.
The Handmaid’s Tale portrays a future where women’s rights have been violently stolen away, whereas Alias Grace shows us a past when those rights never even existed. Both these shows airing in a year in which systematic sexism has been uncovered across the western world, ask us to question just how close our own culture is from either story. Are we as far away from the past of Alias Grace as we would like to believe and are we hurtling closer to a future portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale?
Alias Grace is a fictional tale based on real historical events. It is a story about early psychoanalysis, a television portrayal of oral history, part murder mystery, part true crime and even horror dressed up as a period drama. Adapted from Atwood’s novel by screenwriter Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron, it tells the story of Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) who has been imprisoned for 15 years in the Kingston Penitentiary in Canada in 1859. She has been convicted of the murder of her employer and his housekeeper. Grace is a poor Irish immigrant who has only ever worked as a domestic servant and would surely have been forgotten in history if not for her trial and conviction which turns her into something of a celebrity and object of fascination.
In episode 1 of the series, Grace attracts the attention of a committee of religious men (one of whom is bizarrely portrayed by David Cronenberg) who lobby to set her free as they believe her to be innocent. They maintain that the real perpetrator is her co-conspirator, a man named James McDermott (Kerr Logan), who was hanged years earlier. In attempt to set Grace free, her supporters hire Dr Jordan (Edward Holcroft), a young psychiatric doctor to do an evaluation on her mental state and recollection of the crimes.
Grace is far more intelligent than a simple servant and what starts out as an interview quickly becomes something far more complicated as Grace uses the only weapons available to her, her own words. It is with her words, that she weaves her story, manipulating Dr Jordan. The first scene of the episode is simply a closeup of her face in which she narrates all the things that people believe her to be and how she has been described over the past years. She is aware that throughout her trial and imprisonment people have projected onto her, their own fears and beliefs.
Actress Sarah Gadon’s performance is just vague enough to allow us, the audience to also project on to her and to assume we know her thoughts, but can never be sure. We are asked to be detectives, to figure out how and why the crime was committed but always aware that Grace is an unreliable narrator. She could be lying to us, she could be lying to Dr Jordan and she could even be lying to herself.
As well as giving the viewer a brief taste of what Victorian psychoanalysis may have looked like, the show also explores the field of oral history and is perhaps one of the first television dramas to do so so eloquently. Oral history is the collection and study of historical information about people, important events, or everyday life. Grace’s story is not recorded history, as the technology does not yet exist, but Dr Jordan is using the same techniques as an oral historian and Grace is recounting not only the events of her life but the challenges faced by the Canadian working class.
Oral history is very much a personal narrative of the person speaking and therefore it is not without bias and is definitely perceptible to inconsistencies which is shown in Grace’s memories regarding the murder itself. Grace is sewing her story, in the same way she describes wedding quilts being sewn and like the quilts the various different threads of her story have multiple hidden meanings. It may not come as surprise that Sarah Polley wrote the script for this series. Her own documentary Stories We Tell, released in 2012 to critical acclaim, examines the different memories her family and friends have of her deceased mother. As a writer she is interested in how the truth can differ depending on who is telling it.
It is not just the writing of Alias Grace that is clever, but also the directing and editing. Director Mary Harron crafts a visually and sonically immersive story in which flashbacks of Grace’s past never feel artificial. Harron cleverly splices present innocuous day scenes with sudden and violent shots of the murders or Grace screaming in the asylum. The scenes of Grace’s journey to America are a vision of a watery hell and probably the worst boat journey ever portrayed in television.
The show is unashamedly feminist and Grace’s voice portrays a realistic female view of the Victorian world. This is a world in which men abuse the power they hold over women. This abuse seeps into every area of life, even when men are not present. Grace’s view of a bed and the wedding quilt that drapes over it tells us all we need to know about women’s lives in the 1800s. A bed may seem like a place of rest, but she tells Dr. Jordan ‘there are many dangerous things that need take place on a bed’ emphasising the threat of sexual violence and dangers of childbirth. The quilts adorning women’s beds are likened to flags carried by armies into battle.
Grace is also powerless as a woman in the barbaric prison system that surrounds her and in the treatment she receives in the asylum. The show isn’t just portraying cases of mistreatment towards women by individual men, but also how women are trapped by the institutions that govern them. From the scenes in the courtroom of scribbling male journalists at Grace’s trial, and the abrupt dismissal of the Governor’s daughter by Dr Jordan to the brutish prison guards and Grace’s abusive father all display the power imbalance between men and women. This power imbalance is not just physical but economic, professional and social. Grace’s credibility is always in question, not just because of her supposed crime, or her possible deceit, but because she is a woman. It is not impossible to imagine that the women who wrote, designed and directed Alias Grace were trying to make us think about gender equality in today’s world.
At the end of episode one, Grace has escaped her abusive father, and begun employment in the wealthy household of Mr Alderman Parkinson. It is there that she meets Mary (Rebecca Liddiard), another housemaid who is warm, lively and full of confidence. Very quickly the two girls become close, mostly due to Mary’s open friendliness. This relationship is a small spark of joy in Grace’s otherwise harsh life. But it is already tinged with sadness for we know, from Grace’s recounting of events, that Mary will die.
This is a story where ultimately we already know the end, Grace’s presence in prison is the proof of future tragedy. This sense of foreboding is conveyed so strongly that Alias Grace feels like a dream that descends slowly into a nightmare that we cannot wake up from.
Alias Grace is now airing on Netflix. Let us know what you think of the season.