ALIAS GRACE Review
There were a lot of things I expected to see when I first sat down to watch ALIAS GRACE. I thought it would be another run-of-the-mill miniseries adapted from a piece of historical fiction, simply acquired by Netflix from a Canadian network as a way to increase its ever-growing mass of content. The main cast and crew were unknown to me (save for body horror director David Cronenberg in a supporting role), and I had chosen to watch it purely because it was based on another Margaret Atwood book. After the incredible first season of THE HANDMAID’S TALE, I was a bit curious to see what ALIAS GRACE was. More or less, I guessed the show would be good, but not that good.
Luckily for me, I was very wrong. ALIAS GRACE is not only one of the best series Netflix has released this year, but also an adaptation to rival THE HANDMAID’S TALE. Where THE HANDMAID’S TALE focuses on how women could be treated in the future, ALIAS GRACE is rooted in the past and keeps its eye on the trials and tribulations women have gone through—and are arguably still dealing with—the past few centuries. The six-episode miniseries is set in the late 1850s in Canada, where Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a former domestic servant, has been a prisoner in a women’s penitentiary for over 15 years. Her crime? The murder of her employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his mistress Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin). Grace was sentenced to life while her co-conspirator, James McDermott (Kerr Logan), was hanged. A group of people from the church led by Reverend Verringer (David Cronenberg) believe she is innocent and hire Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) to do a psychiatric evaluation of Grace.
Sarah Gadon: *Breathes*
Me: Give her the Emmy
The story of how Grace went from a young, bright-eyed Irish immigrant to a “celebrated murderess” is told mostly through flashbacks, as she recalls her story to Dr. Jordan day-by-day. However, Jordan—and therefore the viewer—starts to get a sense that Grace may not be telling the whole truth. Whether she has repressed certain memories (particularly her recollection of the day of the murders) or is intentionally hiding parts of the story is unclear throughout the miniseries. The real mystery of ALIAS GRACE seems to be not whether Grace is to blame for the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery, but Grace herself and what type of person she is.
In the opening of “Part 1”, Grace looks at herself in the mirror and—through voice-over—ponders all the things people have called her: a scheming killer, an innocent woman, a dutiful servant, and more. Finally, she wonders, “How can I be all of these things at once?” This brilliant little monologue manages to show off Sarah Gadon’s incredible performance as Grace and delve into Grace’s character within the first three minutes. More importantly, though, the cold open of the series puts us right in the shoes of Grace and every other woman from that time. Back then (and often today), men judged women not for who they actually were, but for who they expected the women to be. Women were supposed to be demure and graceful for their husbands or masters, but simultaneously tough and strong enough to do any and every job around the household. And of course, these flawed expectations men place on women are only the tip of the iceberg.
Take Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), Grace’s friend at her first job as a household servant. Over Christmas, Mary has a secret affair with the son of the family they both work for and becomes pregnant. Mary confronts the son in a panic, who gives her five dollars as “support” and warns her not to tell anyone, else she be fired and her reputation ruined. Desperate, Mary goes to an amateur abortionist and passes away a day after the abortion. The character of Mary Whitney is another stark reminder of the way men have and continue to treat women over the years. The son of the family used Mary and discarded her like a broken toy once hearing of her pregnancy; Mary had no one to turn to except Grace and had to resort to receiving a botched abortion that ultimately cost her her life.
I recently wrote an article about non-horror films that are terribly scary; even though ALIAS GRACE is an episodic miniseries rather than a feature film, I would consider it to be a true work of horror. The final episode alone reveals certain haunting truths about Grace that stick with you long after the show finishes. Regardless, Sarah Gadon’s incredible performance makes Grace Marks one of the most impenetrable characters ever created: a woman plagued by the world she lives in and the men she has to endure. From the son Mary sleeps with to her abusive father, from Kinnear and McDermott to even Dr. Jordan, Grace has learned to hide deep within herself when it comes to men. And, after seeing the world through Grace’s eyes over six episodes, who would blame her?
Me when summer break ends every year
One minor weakness of ALIAS GRACE is that, while the miniseries does a fantastic job of developing Grace’s character, other roles are left on the backburner. One of the great parts about the first season of THE HANDMAID’S TALE was the show’s ability to draw empathy and a touch of humanity to even the most unsympathetic characters. However, ALIAS GRACE spends so much time focusing on who Grace is that it does not pay much attention to anyone else. I would have preferred to spend more time on Dr. Jordan’s growing attraction to Grace or—especially—Anna Paquin’s character, the mistress Nancy Montgomery. Paquin is splendid in her role, but unfortunately, her role as Nancy is given little characterization besides the “overprotective and jealous mistress.” For a show that emphasizes its female characters, it seems bizarre to give such little attention to such a central female character in Grace’s story.
However, I have to give credit to both writer Sarah Polley and director Mary Harron for handling Atwood’s brilliant novel with an unflinching eye. ALIAS GRACE is a series that refuses to balk at any hardship women went through, yet it does not for a second show them in a pitiful light. Grace and Mary are both strong and intelligent women boxed into impossible situations, reaping the consequences of men’s foolhardy actions. Some television series try to tell a rich story with compelling characters, some attempt to show issues that are pertinent in past and contemporary society, and some are just meant to entertain. ALIAS GRACE does all three effortlessly and succinctly without a misstep.