Alias Grace review

Sarah Polley's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace is now on Netflix and nothing short of a triumph. Spoilers ahead in our review...

Warning: contains book and series spoilers.

There is a quilt pattern, mentioned in Alias Grace, called Attic Windows, which is an exercise in shifting perspectives. To look at the quilt one way is to see a collection of closed boxes, but to look at it from another finds you looking at open boxes. A quilt such as this one is stitched together from various materials, each one individual but in service of the larger pattern. To see one part of the quilt is to only see one aspect of it. A quilt must be seen in its entirety in order to appreciate the pattern effect as a whole. Alias Grace is a similar kind of construction, different perspectives working together to form the pattern of Grace Marks’ life.

When sixteen-year old Grace, an Irish-Canadian servant, was convicted of murdering her master Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in 1843, narratives sprung up around her. Some were born of her own confession and testimony, others from that of her accomplice James McDermott (who would hang for the crime). Media reports latched on to her youth and a fierce debate ensued. On the one side, people were convinced of her guilt as a murderess. On the other, there were people who were convinced that she was an unwitting and innocent accomplice to the deplorable McDermott.

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The idea of Grace (Sarah Gadon) as a construct of her own and others’ making runs through Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel. Though it is based on the true story of the Kinnear-Montgomery murders, Atwood crafts a fictional narrative that explores the darker side of domesticity and what happens to the women who transgress social convention. It is set sixteen years after the conviction and Grace is serving her life sentence at Kingston Penitentiary. Local residents, such as the Reverend Verringer (David Cronenberg), are campaigning for Grace’s pardon and invite a doctor, Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), to assess whether she was insane at the time of the murders, as was implied.

Polley carries over Atwood’s intertextuality into her adaptation, using some of the epigraphs featured at the openings of episodes. The non-fictional documents surrounding the trial and Grace are referred to frequently, including McDermott’s (Kerr Logan) testimony, Grace’s confession, and Susanna Moodie’s account of the “celebrated murderess” in Life in the Clearings versus Life in the Bush, a major influence on Atwood. They form one patchwork version of the story that acts as an undercurrent to the other layers of storytelling here.

The bulk of Grace’s story is told in flashback to Jordan, from her own perspective. It moves through her life, including her migration to Canada, right up to the murders. Crucially, she claims to have no memory of the murders themselves and the spectre of that black hole in her memory haunts the interactions between her and Jordan. There is another layer of narration from Grace too, a future letter she is writing to the doctor in the years after her eventual pardon. During this, she freely admits to embellishing and editing certain details of her story in order to please Jordan, confirming her unreliability as a narrator. The final perspective is of Jordan’s story as he moves through his investigation, becoming unhealthily obsessed with Grace in the process, seeing himself as her romantic rescuer.

In layering the narratives in such a way, Polley invites the audience to interrogate the various stories that are being told. Is Grace telling the truth? Are Jordan’s intentions entirely honourable towards his interviewee? Whose truth are we supposed to believe? Doing so captures the fascinating ambiguity of the novel and remains faithful to the nuances that Atwood fed through the story. It also keeps an audience constantly questioning what they’re seeing, an uneasiness that when examined closely, Grace’s story has the distinct flavour of a manufactured lie to exonerate herself.

Veteran director Mary Harron allows herself few visual flourishes in the present day scenes, but Grace’s narrative flashbacks allow the director to capitalise on that sense of ill ease. The camera swoops through the empty Kinnear household on several occasions, the daylight coming in through the windows casting long shadows over the house’s fixtures and furniture. It feels haunted and close, as if the very walls are pressing in from the edge of the frame. The violence of the murders flash into present day as short, sharp shocks too. As the story draws closer to the murders, camera angles become ever so slightly askew, furthering that feeling that all might not be quite right with Grace’s story.

The hypnotisation scene in the final episode is the clash of all of these various themes and tones. Harron shoots Grace’s face beneath the veil in close-up, but only half of her features are really visible. It is the dark half of Grace the audience is seeing, the Mary Whitney half who supposedly convinced McDermott to commit the murders and pulled the handkerchief tight around Nancy’s neck. As a scene, it’s a testament to the power of storytelling; it manages to exonerate Grace of any involvement or knowledge of the murders. But the question hangs over that scene: is Grace simply performing another role for her self-preservation?

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In the opening narration, lifted from the novel, Grace stares into a mirror and recounts the various things that she has been called throughout her life, all of them contradictory and judgemental. “And I wonder, how can I be all of these different things at once?” As Grace, Gadon faces the tough task of having to sell all of these reported facets of Grace’s character as well as operating as the kind of blank slate upon which others, men especially, can imprint their ideas upon her. It is a fascinating, intelligent performance, one which bends and transforms depending on the stage of the story and the perspective from which Grace is being viewed.

Holcroft’s Jordan feels a touch undeveloped as a result of the focus on Grace; his white knight tendencies are teased out towards the end, but he feels like a construct that walked into the story at its beginning rather than having a life of his own prior to it. Anna Paquin is excellent as the prickly Nancy Montgomery, a woman who knows her position with her master and lover is precarious, forcing her to operate from a constant state of desperation. Zachary Levi’s Jeremiah brings a certain levity to the dark tale and Cronenberg gives an oddly comforting performance as Verringer. Another standout is Rebecca Liddiard as Mary Whitney, an influential figure throughout the tale. Liddiard captures her vibrancy with ease and her chemistry with Gadon furthers the tragedy of their separation.

To adapt a novel as ambiguous and nuanced as Alias Grace is a task of great ambition, but what Polley and Harron have produced is nothing short of a triumph. It is faithful in all the ways it needed to be and crucially, refuses to solve the question of whether Grace is guilty or not. It is, after all, a matter of perspective.

Alias Grace is available to stream now on Netflix.