If Alias Grace doesn’t win anything during this awards season, we will eat our bonnets. The Netflix adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name boasts an exceptional script, expert direction and a cast who embody their roles so fully that no performance ever feels unrealistic or fake.
Alias Grace is a fictional tale based on the real historical event of the conviction and incarceration of an Irish housemaid for the murder of her employer and his housekeeper in 19th Century Canada. The series touches on many themes and ideas: Victorian views of psychoanalysis, the oral history of the working classes, sexual relations in a repressed society, the rights of women and the gender imbalance that has existed between men and women throughout time. The story, adapted from Atwood’s novel by screenwriter Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron, is part murder mystery, part true crime and even horror dressed up as a period drama. But Alias Grace is foremost a story about women and how, in a society where they have virtually no power, they are forced to survive by any means necessary.
The main character is Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a poor Irish immigrant, whose intelligence is clearly shown but unrecognised by those around her. The script is unashamedly feminist and Grace’s voice portrays a realistic female view of the Victorian world in which men hold all the power, both physically, monetarily and institutionally. The show is awash with oppressive male characters from the lewd talk of Grace’s partner in crime, James McDermott (Kerr Logan), to her physically violent father. In one dreamlike scene Grace tumbles from the arms of one man into another, passed like a desirable object between them.
Dr Jordan (Edward Holcroft) is an especially interesting character. Intrigued by Grace, he spends long hours questioning her and hanging on her every word. As the series progresses he starts to have sexual fantasies about her, imagining her as a loving partner or himself as her saviour. His view of Grace is clouded by his male beliefs and ego. She is either a murdering Jezebel or an innocent beautiful servant. He seems to have no suspicion that Grace may be manipulating him throughout their many sessions together. Dr Jordan’s sympathies only run so deep, he reacts with anger and betrayal when Grace channels the spirit of her dead friend Mary (Rebecca Liddiard) and perhaps his professional pride is hurt. He may have imagined he could solve the mystery of Grace’s guilt all on his own. His hard, unforgiving stare when Grace tells him of Mary’s decision to have an illegal abortion is astounding. Having listened to Grace recount how desperate Mary was and how tragic her demise is, he cannot be swayed from his privileged male view of the world. As Grace so succinctly puts it ‘if the world treats you well you come to think of yourself as deserving of it’ describing the privileged entitlement of men, especially rich ones.
Dr Jordan is not the only male character to view Grace as a plaything, a puzzle or an object. Even friendly Jeremiah (Zachary Levi), the pedlar, imagines what Grace can do for his business. Grace’s employer, Thomas Kinnear (an unrecognisable Paul Gross), teases her and regards her as a possible younger replacement for his current mistress. Grace’s eventual husband, a sweet boy who loves her, asks Grace to often recount her many traumas and asks her to forgive him for testifying at her trial. But this too is selfish. As nice as he is, he also suffers from the saviour complex that Dr Jordan has. He wants to save Grace and then possess her sexually. Very few men in the show see Grace for who she really is. She is either objectified, condemned or simplified. The viewer is given the impression that Grace is aware of how men view her, she quickly graduates in series from innocent migrant to world-weary convict. Grace’s split personalities are the different roles she takes to appease men, to fit their view and ensure her survival.
Alias Grace also explores the complexity of relationships between men and women especially fraught with tension and danger in a world as sexually oppressed as 19th Century Canada. Mary warns Grace not to visit the outdoor toilet at night by herself for fear of sexual assault, something that women living in poverty still have to worry about even in the third world of the 21st Century. Mary herself loses her life because of her sexual relationship with the son of her employer. In what would have been a short-lived and emotionally painful affair in 2017, is a life-threatening disaster for the housemaid in 1840. Sex outside of marriage and between different classes was simply condemned.
It is this strict morality that means that murder victims Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin) and Thomas Kinnear are engaging in a relationship that is frowned upon by everyone including the servants in their own household. Paquin is exceptional in her role as Nancy; all fine clothes and sweet smiles but possessing a twitchy, nervous and manipulative underbelly. She knows at any moment she could fall out of favour and be destitute and so gives in to every dominating whim of Kinnear. In one particularly brilliant scene, she gets steadily drunk sitting angrily alone in the kitchen while Kinnear entertains his male friends for dinner in the next room. She can hear their laughter but due to her station as a servant and her status as his mistress she can never gain full entry into Kinnear’s world. It is her who loses respectability by engaging in the relationship, not Kinnear. Another example of fraught relationships in restrictive Victorian society is Dr Jordan and his landlady Mrs. Humphrey (Sarah Manninen). Abandoned by her husband, Mrs Humphrey has no means to support herself or to assuage her loneliness. Driven by sexual desire and desperation, she harasses Dr Jordan and manipulates him into caring for her. When he does finally give in to her advances, both parties obviously feel self-loathing and shame.
The deepest and most intense relationships of the show are not between the sexes however, but between women. Grace both admires and disapproves of glamorous Nancy. Grace’s relationship with Mary Whitney is as dramatic as any love story. It is Mary that shapes Grace’s life, or so she tells Dr Jacob. Mary is too lively and vivacious for this world’s strict and suffocating class rules and female oppression. Although her dreams are surprisingly simple; a farm with a cow, some chickens and a dog. Her dreams and stories become Grace’s dreams and stories. Mary’s words echo again and again in Grace’s speech and it does not come as a surprise that Mary’s spirit (real or imagined) is embroiled in the murders.
As she lies dying from a botched abortion, Mary declares: “I am angry, I am so very angry.” What she is referring to we can only guess, although it could be anything ranging from the abortion, her lover’s cruel abandonment or the oppression of her working-class family. Alias Grace is an angry series and it is the quiet suppressed anger of the female gaze that is threaded throughout Sarah Polley’s script. We know that the fury boiling underneath is bound to erupt eventually. When Grace is finally questioned about the murders, we are almost desperate to find out the truth. In a truly exhilarating scene, Grace is hypnotised by Jeremiah (now a respectable doctor of hypnotism) and Mary’s angry and defiant voice emerges. It is not clear if this is really Mary speaking from beyond the grave or if Grace herself suffers from a personality disorder. Either way, Grace finally expresses the revulsion she feels for the men who have abused her, all the while with a chilling smile on her face. It is a scene that would be at home in any horror movie or ghost story.
Director Mary Harron injects many other horror-like elements into the series, sometimes in the most nondescript and domestic settings. Nancy stuffing animal fat into her mouth, shots of the empty cellar, the repeated stunted cutting of apples, the blood-red petticoat, the coffin-like punishment box in the prison that Grace is locked inside and the restraining wooden chair of the asylum. Mary’s death, like the murders themselves, are not overly graphic, but they are grotesque with the smell of blood being compared to a butcher’s shop
The mystery of Alias Grace is never fully solved. But finding out the truth of who murdered Nancy and Thomas is not really the point. This is a series that asks the audience to reflect on the idea of stories and how they are told. To examine the different voices we use, the different masks we wear and how we adapt to different environments. Can there be different versions of the truth? What are the lies we tell ourselves to live with our history and our past? This is master storytelling by Sarah Polley and Mary Harron, which when viewed makes you realise that everything else you have watched in 2017 is not even close to being in the same league as Alias Grace. This is television that demands your attention and requires close examination. The last scene is of Grace compiling her own quilt in which she has weaved the stories of Mary and Nancy. As she gazes at the camera, this is the closest, we, as the audience, get to seeing the whole picture and understanding her. But Grace’s story has always been in plain sight, if you wished to see it and look close enough.