NB: SPOILERS INSIDE
Award-winning novelist Margaret Atwood is undergoing a well-deserved renaissance among a new generation of readers and watchers, thanks largely to the remarkable adaptation of her book, The Handmaid’s Tale, earlier in the year. The series, which starred Elisabeth Moss, has been the drama of the year in any genre, at once engrossing and harrowing. Now another Atwood adaptation – Alias Grace – hits streaming site Netflix after originally airing on Canada’s CBC channel. It’s hard not to compare it to The Handmade’s Tale, but this stands alone as another fantastic, well assembled (by writer Sarah Polley and director Mary Harron) and thought-provoking piece that stays with you and haunts you for days afterwards. And what’s more, it’s a crime drama.
Alias Grace has those key Atwood themes in spades – oppressed women in subservient roles in an extremely and aggressively patriarchal society, entrapment, Canadian history and revolution, as well as a rising up against the forces of enslavement. Atwood said about The Handmaid’s Tale that its influences were mined from different eras of history to create a terrifyingly dystopian future. Here, Alias Grace is rooted in a very specific time that was very real, which makes this story even scarier and adds layers of tragedy.
Not only is Alias Grace set in a real time and a real place, but it’s also based on a true story – that of Grace Marks, convicted of double-murder of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery (more on them later) and incarcerated for almost 30 years. The real Grace Marks was eventually pardoned and released after years of pleading innocence, changed her name and lived out the rest of her days in the United States.
It’s this did she/didn’t she ambiguity that Atwood plays on in her Grace Marks story. From the very first moment to the very final episode we do not know if she has committed the crimes. Up until that moment, Alias Grace is a masterful study of manipulation and morals.
The series lives or dies on the performance of Sarah Gadon as Grace, an Irish emigré who we first meet during her period of her incarceration. Gadon produces a fantastically nuanced, understated performance – as well as a decent Northern Irish accent – and provides plenty of steadfast, almost ambiguous insouciance. It’s difficult to read her, and her intentions, and that’s precisely the point.
Grace is hired out to serve the governor of the prison she’s kept in, while members of the Methodist church want her pardoned. They hire an ‘alienist’ (a precursor to a psychotherapist), one Dr Simon Jordan (a slightly wooden Edward Holcroft), to help determine whether Grace was/is insane or not. If he can prove that she wasn’t of sound mind during the reckoning, they have a chance of getting her off.
Grace and Jordan’s interview sessions form the bedrock of the series, and as the episodes tick by they lure you in slowly but surely until you want more. Grace recounts her life to the objective and sympathetic Jordan, from her poor beginnings in Ireland, the horrendous abuse her father meted out to her, and the disease-ridden journey by boat over to Canada (which claimed the life of her mother), to landing a job as a maid in the well-to-do Parkinson household when she finally reached the promised land. Her interview manner is calm, perky and open, but we, as an audience, know otherwise – while she’s recounting a version of her life story to Jordan, she’s also producing an inner monologue, which differs from the version he’s hearing. As she tells us, addressing Jordan in one of these monologues: “You want to go where I can never go, see what I can never see inside me. You want to open my body and peer inside. In your hand, you want to hold my beating female heart.”
As Grace talks she sews constantly. The camera lingers on her sewing fingers from time to time, suggesting that this action is a way to keep calm – almost like concealing a nervous tick. Without doubt, Grace is an unreliable narrator, only telling Jordan what she thinks he wants to hear. Instead we, as an audience see and hear her full story.
The first two episodes concentrate on her time at the Parkinsons, and her burgeoning friendship with fellow maid and roommate Mary Whitney – a young woman who speaks about revolutionary politics and teaches Grace how to work as a maid and, crucially for Grace, teach her how to be a woman. When Grace has her first period, Mary is on hand to calm her and counter, when Grace complains about ‘the curse of Eve’, “The real curse of Eve was having to put up with the curse of Adam.”
The curse of Adam strikes soon enough. Mary becomes pregnant after a secret affair with the son of the Parkinson matriarch and decides to have a back-street abortion. It was a heartbreaking segment – Mary knowing as soon as she was pregnant that her life was done for; if she survived the abortion (which was a slim chance), she would surely be fired from her job and thrown into the workhouse. Such was the lot for women in the mid-19th century. Mary died from internal bleeding shortly after, with her best friend Grace not quite knowing what to do – she held onto an old belief that she would be cursed somehow if she didn’t let her friend’s soul escape through an open window. She succumbed to a breakdown, all the while trying to keep up appearances to her unforgiving employer.
Episodes three and four documented her transfer to the Kinnear household, initiated by housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin). Nancy enjoyed a special relationship with Kinnear – a Rhett Butler-like bachelor who she described as a ‘liberal’ but was well known in the community for having a liking for servant women he often described as “dirty girls”. A pure, rank misogynist. (One other note on Kinnear. He’s played here by Paul Gross, who produces the worst Scottish accent ever committed to television. It’s like he’s constantly doing a bad impression of Sean Connery. Surely shome mishtake.)
While Nancy is all sweetness and light towards Grace in the initial stages of their working relationship, she soon becomes irritable, capricious and jealous. And this is where you can compare Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale again – the relationship between Ofred and Serena is similar to that of Grace and Nancy.
Added to this potentially volatile mix is John McDermott, another Irish emigré working in the Kinnear house and full of hate. He doesn’t like being bossed around by women and/or the rich and his disdain towards Kinnear and Nancy soon bubbles into talk with Grace of doing unspeakable things. When Grace overheard Nancy and Kinnear talking about firing Grace and McDermott, the whispers in the wind, the fanciful ideas, started to become fully formed.
And this is where Alias Grace turns. Up until that point, we were fairly convinced that Grace had been, more or less, telling the truth to Jordan (he was becoming more and more beguiled by Grace), but in episode five – as she started to recount the day Kinnear and Nancy were murdered – versions of events shifted and differed until you really didn’t know who was telling the truth. McDermott always maintained that Grace had put him up to it; Grace said otherwise. We saw McDermott shooting Kinnear, and then strangling Nancy. We then saw Grace helping. Then we didn’t.
The final episode was mesmerising and kept up the whole did she/didn’t she ruse right until the end. Grace’s old friend Jerome Dupont (know to her as Jeremiah when she first encountered him at the Parkinsons) – having transformed from travelling palm reader and tinker to a semi-respectable expert on psychology, specialising in hypnotism – offered to put Grace under, and try to plunder her subconscious to find out the truth of the matter. Something unexpected happened: Grace slipped into a trance and a second personality was revealed, that of Mary Whitney, her dead friend who was now reborn in Grace’s body. She spat profanities at the gathered crowd and taunted Jordan, and revealed that she had kept McDermott all the while using sex and promise as a way for him to do her bidding. We then flashbacked and saw her help strangle Nancy Montgomery, a look of manic glee on her face. But then, when ‘Mary’ disappeared and Grace reappeared we saw a different point of view – of Grace cowering in the corner while McDermott did the deed.
It was clear now that this was the version that Grace believed, while the real version – she had killed Nancy as her psychopathic personality (Mary) had taken charge.
(One quote from Grace, recounting Mary worth noting: “With the pump, you have to pour some in before you can get any out. Mary Whitney used to say that was exactly how men used to view the flattering of a woman if they had low ends in view.”)
Today we would have diagnosed a dangerous multiple personality disorder. Here, in the mid-19th century, they believed that spirits had taken over Grace’s body.
This was enough to send Jordan loopy, and running from the case – it was too much for him to comprehend and understand. Had Grace been telling the truth at any time or manipulating him the time, as all his (male) colleagues and peers had suggested?
There was a happy ending for Grace in the end, but only after a substantial wait – she was eventually pardoned and settled in America, marrying Jamie Walsh, the Kinnear servant boy who was sweet on during their time at the doomed household. Whether he married her out of love or guilt is a question we can debate – Grace noted that he loved to hear about the torture and rough treatment of her while in captivity, as if it was some sort of self-flagellation (it was his testimony that helped to send her down). She also noted that Jordan also liked to hear of her mistreatment, almost revelling in it.
The were voyeurs, but perhaps more than that – perhaps the characters of Jordan and, latterly, Walsh and their guilt signified the guilt and insecurities of all men.
In the end, Alias Grace was an entirely engrossing study of manipulation, with one of the best unreliable narrators ever seen on television (a line towards the end from Grace, “As with Mr Walsh, I may have changed some of the details of my story to suit what I thought you wanted to hear” illustrated her cleverness nicely). With Atwood’s key themes in play throughout, these six episodes featured beautifully layered and complex pieces of storytelling, with scenes that were occasionally spellbinding (the interview scenes reeled you in, while Grace’s forboding dream sequence in episode five was scary and mesmeric). All fuelled the did she/didn’t she axis on which the series wobbled so expertly.
It also asked questions that many murder stories don’t: what are the circumstances that turn a person into a killer? Could Grace’s horrific life of abuse, death and servitude have twisted her mind and, latterly, suppressed certain impulses? Of course it had, and it should be noted that in her life all abuse and torture had come from the hands of men, within a patriarchy that decided her place in society and, in the end, her fate.
As Grace sat on her new porch, sewing a new blanket comprising momentoes from the women she had known – pieces of material from Mary and Nancy’s dresses – she looked out onto her land finally free and at relative peace.
As she said: “The guilt comes to you not from the things you have done, but from the things others have done to you.”