In the wake of the Weinstein scandal and the growing mainstream discourse around how we treat – and believe – women, Netflix’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace could not be more timely. That a true story from 19th-century Canada is just as relevant now as then shows how little has changed in our society, and it is this that Alias Grace explores so well.
Although billed as a True Crime drama, the ultimate message of Alias Grace is that Grace’s guilt or innocence should not be our primary concern. Far more important is the way that her story is told. Throughout the series, we are shown the way in which our heroine’s agency is manipulated and taken from her.
From her lawyer telling her what to say in court, up to Doctor Jordan’s questioning, the variations of Grace’s account shed a light on the way that women’s stories are disbelieved and sensationalised.
Aside from this, does it even matter if Grace did, in the end, commit the murder? Through a collection of slickly woven-in flashbacks, Alias Grace asks whether a violent reaction to an abusive upbringing and lifetime of brutal oppression is, in fact, surprising.
Sarah Polley’s adaptation offers no easy answers, and Sarah Gadon’s performance brilliantly encapsulates the nuance of these questions. A refreshing protagonist in a genre where passive victims and femme fatales abound, Gadon’s subtlety and neutrality give her character the ambiguity and complexity so vital to the plot.
From the very first scene we see this, as Gadon’s facial expressions and demeanour rapidly mutate while she contemplates the many facets of her public image. She is at once both the ‘inhuman female demon’ and an ‘innocent victim’: at the same time, she is neither. Gadon is surrounded by many other stellar performances, with a compelling dynamic especially between herself and Edward Holcroft’s Doctor Jordan.
As well as Sarah Polley’s brilliant rewriting of Atwood’s novel, Alias Grace benefits hugely from Mary Harron’s captivating direction. The series’ pace is far slower than most whodunnits; rather than rush through cliffhangers and twists, Harron’s directing allows for long close-ups of faces and small details. The recurring shots of women’s hands stitching and quilts emphasise the show’s structure of a patchwork quilt of stories and perspectives, making Alias Grace far more than a murder mystery.
The softness of the camera is reminiscent of a romantic BBC Victorian period drama, yet what is contained within the shots entirely subverts this; the camera is allowed to linger on the show’s most shocking scenes, such as the blood on Mary Whitney’s sheets.
This, coupled with the show’s script and casting, takes everything we might expect from a 19th-century female narrative and turns it entirely on its head. This is what makes Alias Grace such a gripping watch.
Image: Special Collections Toronto Public Library @ Flickr