RECOMMENDED: "ALIAS GRACE" ON NETFLIX
"Alias Grace" marks 2017's second large-scale, big-budget Margaret Atwood adaptation, following up on Hulu's acclaimed take on "The Handmaid's Tale." It feels like these stories are arriving at an important cultural moment, when discussion about the horrors women have privately endured at the hands of powerful men are filling up our newspapers and social media feeds. Both "Handmaid's Tale" and "Alias Grace" insightfully observe and comment on these situations, without feeling single-minded, or polemical; they're entertaining stories, told in a compelling fashion that's ideal for binge-ready Peak TV.
Netflix's "Alias Grace," adapted for TV by filmmaker Sarah Polley and directed by "American Psycho" vet Mary Harron, is loosely based on a true story. There was a real Grace Marks, an Irish-Canadian immigrant who was convicted of the 1843 murders of farmer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Atwood's novel, and now the show, adds a narrative device - a young doctor, specializing in mental health, who becomes fascinated by Grace's case and wants to hear her story, which we then see related in flashback.
Because the bulk of the series is entirely set in Grace's head, and we learn quickly that she's an unreliable narrator, the show is constantly reinventing itself, making viewers question everything they've seen before. So I'll hesitate to go into further detail. But Polley and Harron have created a genuinely disarming mystery, hidden within a social commentary, and the combination is so deft, that it's 2 or 3 episodes in before you even start to wonder what Grace is accused of, or feel ready to hear her version of the events.
Most procedurals do the opposite: "Law & Order" episodes open with a crime, and get you hooked on the investigation, THEN try to get you to relate to or sympathize with the individuals involved. "Alias Grace" opens in such bewildering fashion, in a world overcome by toil and misery, that Grace Marks becomes our rock. She's the only narrative element that we trust and can depend on. We can't help but see things from her perspective, as everyone else is either yelling at her or ignoring her.
Much of the credit here goes to Sarah Gadon's remarkable lead performance as Grace. The idea that she functions as something of a blank slate, intentionally, allowing those with whom she interacts to project their own ideas, fears and prejudices on to her, is core to the storytelling. But how do you EXPRESS THAT as an actor? Gadon does a ton with very little dialogue, stray glances and the occasional fainting spell. Also, I think this is the first performance I've ever seen in film or TV that truly expresses how uncomfortable and awkward it would be to interact with people while wearing a bonnet all the time.
Like "Handmaid's Tale," "Alias Grace" is unflinching, and it can be tough to watch at times. These are the kinds of stories women were (and are) encouraged to keep to themselves, in many ways because of how uncomfortable they make other people. But it's an important story, and wonderfully polished and well-told, so I'm enthusiastically recommending it all the same.
Title: "Alias Grace"
Where to Watch: Netflix
Episodes: 6 (1 season)
Running time: 42-45 minutes each
Genre: Historical crime drama