This Alias Grace review contains spoilers.
Anxious for another Margaret Atwood show? Love historical fiction or true crime? Looking for something that delves into class, gender, mental health, and the perils of the 1800s prison system? Alias Grace, Netflix’s latest, is a quiet deep dive on all of the above that will push back on your views of morality and justice.
Based on a true story, when the series starts, Grace Marks, an Irish former-servant is in jail in Toronto in 1859, serving a life sentence for two murders. Her partner in crime, also convicted, was hanged years ago, and Grace has been in prison since 1843, when she was just 16. A rather charming (and fictitious) young psychologist, Dr. Simon Jordan, has come to probe Grace’s mind, as she is a “famed murderess.” The two engage in long daily sessions that often feel more like cat and mouse than doctor and patient, as Grace does needlepoint while telling the story of her life, and Jordan tries to figure out if she really committed the murders of which she has been convicted.
The show does an excellent job plumbing the rigid, hierarchical nature of life in the 1800s, a time when it was not proper to speak of untoward things in a direct manner. We see the world through young Grace’s eyes as well as adult Grace’s unreliable narration, and that mixture of naiveté and worldliness keep the audience questioning the meaning of truth, justice, and sanity.
The show is thoroughly Canadian: based on a book by Margaret Atwood, who also has a supervising producer credit and a cameo here, taking place in Toronto, and written entirely by Sarah Polley. Polley opted not to use a writers’ room, instead penning the entire adaptation herself. Translating a 400-something page book to the screen is certainly no easy task, but Polley condenses and expands in all the right places, bringing the dynamic between Jordan and Grace to the fore, and using a sampling of Atwood’s contemporary texts, illustrations, and other primary source material as intro cards to set the mood for each episode.
In spite of the short runtime (six episodes of about 45 minutes each), the pacing of this series is slow, though not displeasing. Going by plot description alone, one would assume that the murders Grace is accused of would be prominent. While they are central to the show, they are withheld for longer than one might expect. Instead, flashes (usually violent) from throughout Grace’s life interject throughout the series, adding to the general feeling of confusion and unease. The flashes put the audience in both Grace’s and Jordan’s shoes, experiencing upsetting intrusive thoughts without warning, while simultaneously catching glimpses of Grace’s story that are gone as soon as they arrive.
The limited series is well cast, with a few well-known players: Anna Paquin is housekeeper Nancy and Zachary Levi is bohemian tailor Jeremiah. By far, though, the standout performance is from Grace Marks herself, played by Sarah Godon. She carries the lion’s share of the dialogue and screen time, which is a tough row to hoe. Her quiet and restrained acting anchors the show, but she always manages to push something enticing and enigmatic to the surface, in spite of the self-discipline a woman of her time and station was required to display. Importantly for the central figure in a murder mystery, Godon and the direction always keep us wondering about Grace’s true nature, even as we root for her as our protagonist.
There’s a surprising amount of humor, for a show about a double-murder, and much of that is due to Gordon’s dry line reading of witty retorts, delivered in a clipped Irish brogue. Don’t worry too much about that accent – while Marks is from Northern Ireland, her accent is closer to one from Dublin, and clear as a bell. If you’re worried about understanding her, speed is the greater issue. Grace’s clever translates well from book to screen, in the form of cheeky dialogue and voiceover, but subtitles may be worthwhile to keep up with her rapid fire pace.
It’s hard not to compare Alias Grace to the other Margaret Atwood prestige drama, The Handmaid’s Tale. They share many common themes, including women’s bodily autonomy and sexual violence, which is both shown and implied here, if that’s a concern for you. In spite of HMT’s modern setting, the costuming and mean they both feel like period pieces, though only Alias Grace really is. Similarly, Atwood’s dedication gives HMT the sheen of historical fiction or (as some have joked) a documentary, but only Alias Grace can boast that it is end-to-end based on a true story. Visually, Alias Grace makes use of close-ups that are reminiscent of HMT, and is also situated largely in the head of an isolated, young white woman who quips at us (and the world around her) via voiceover.
Don’t let the contemplative pace throw you off – Alias Grace is a thoughtful slow burn with a sense of humor and a clear perspective, in spite of the ambiguity it trades in. Fans of period pieces, Atwood’s other work, and television with a feminist slant will certainly love it. But even if that’s not for you, anyone who enjoys true crime or a character-driven drama should consider this artfully layered series.