When we think of the word “dystopia,” we tend to envision a futuristic society. But dystopian nightmares can happen anywhere, at any time. They can even exist within societies we call “free.” The American institution of slavery is only one example.
Author Margaret Atwood is probably best known for her futuristic dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. But her other novel that was adapted for television in 2017, Alias Grace, is just as much a dystopian, even though it is based on a true historical crime story.
A sensational case in Canada during the mid-1800s, it concerns two young servants named Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) and James McDermott (Kerr Logan) who were accused of murdering their employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin).
There seems no doubt that McDermott instigated the murders, but over one hundred and fifty years later, it’s still an open question whether Grace Marks was his accomplice or his third victim. McDermott was hanged, but Grace was sentenced to life in prison.
In this fictionalized version of the case, Atwood invents the character of Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), who is hired to do a psychiatric evaluation of Grace. Members of the Methodist Church, including Reverend Verrenger (David Cronenberg) hope Dr. Jordan’s findings will lead to Grace being pardoned and released from prison.
Grace works as a domestic for the governor of the penitentiary. She and Dr. Jordan begin meeting in the governor’s house and he questions her about the circumstances of her life—and the crimes she supposedly committed. Grace’s story is a sad one of her family emigrating from Ireland to Canada, her being forced to care for an abusive father and younger siblings, and eventually working as a domestic to help support them at the age of thirteen.
At her place of employment, she becomes close friends with Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), an outspoken, lively girl with strong political beliefs. Impregnated and abandoned by the son of her employer, Mary has no choice but to seek an abortion, which kills her. Her death devastates Grace.
Her luck seems to change when she is hired by Nancy Montgomery to work for Thomas Kinnear. But all is not as it seems. Hired hand McDermott is violent and resentful of his employers and threatens to kill them after Nancy lets him go. Nancy, who is having an affair with Kinnear, soon develops a resentment of Grace because she fears she will be her replacement as his mistress.
Grace swears to Dr. Jordan that she has no memory of the murders, but there are various flashes of the murders as she talks to him. Some contradict one another. In some, it seems clear Grace is forced by McDermott to participate. In others, she seems to not only be complicit, but perhaps even driving the event.
Dr. Jordan develops romantic feelings for Grace, while at the same time having an affair with his landlady, who was recently abandoned by her husband. His feelings for Grace color his reactions to her account of events.
Written and produced by actress/director Sara Polley (The Sweet Hereafter) and directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho), the Netflix miniseries Alias Grace seems in some ways even more relevant than The Handmaid’s Tale, especially during the #MeToo era. This is about women who are not believed, or even listened to, and exist for men to project their own feelings and desires.
Grace’s story is a familiar one of women who have to navigate around the truth in order to survive. Powerless because they are both female and poor, girls like Grace and Mary are in constant danger of abuse with no recourse for justice. When Mary dies, Grace’s employer forces her to swear that she was never told who fathered the child. Grace is told by her attorney what to say in court because he believes that will save her life (and it does). No one is interested—until, supposedly, Dr. Jordan—in what genuinely happened to her. Her guilt or innocence becomes a matter of pure opinion. When Dr. Jordan interviews her attorney, he brags that Grace fell in love with him, something that is certainly a figment of his imagination.
There will always be doubt about Grace’s version of the story because, really, aren’t we all conditioned to do just that when it comes to women? At one point Grace blatantly warns Nancy that McDermott means to murder her—and is not believed.
There is a remarkable twist to the story I don’t want to give away that involves a mysterious figure from Grace’s past (Zachary Levi). Let’s just say that Grace’s supporters finally get what seems like some straight talk from her, and they don’t like it.
The production and the cast are phenomenal—I can’t say enough good things about Sarah Gadon’s performance as Grace. She will draw you in the same way Grace draws in Dr. Jordan. Listening to her calm retelling of events, with a soft Irish lilt, is almost hypnotic.
(I also strongly recommend the audio book version of the novel narrated by Gadon. It is superb.)
This miniseries was a dream project of Polley’s for many years (she first approached Atwood about the rights to the novel when she was only seventeen years old). She brought together an amazing cast and director, who navigate the nuances of Atwood’s story masterfully. You will not soon forget Gadon’s Grace.