Alias Grace

Hot on the heels -relatively speaking- of The Handmaid’s Tale on SBS, Netflix will debut another Margaret Atwood-penned drama, Alias Grace.

Her 1996 fictional novel centres around Grace Marks (portrayed here by Sarah Gadon), an Irish-born servant in 1840s Canada convicted of double murder.

Allowed to work in the house of Toronto’s governor, her “celebrated murderess” status becomes a curiosity to society ladies. But she is also of special interest to some in position who question a potential miscarriage of justice, keen to see her released after 15 years behind bars.

Enter pioneering psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) tasked with assessing her state of mind in the hope of writing a most favourable report.

Over the course of the opening episode a dialogue between Grace and Dr. Jordan will begin to peel back a complex series of events in flashback. It details her emigration with family from Ireland, an horrendous ocean voyage, domestic violence (and more) at the hands of her father before employ with wealthy land-owner Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross). There she befriends maid Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), one of her few confidantes in this cruel Dickensian-like existence.

Yet while most doctors have attempted harsh, rudimentary prognosis of Grace, the softly-spoken Dr. Jordan is most benevolent. He has an uphill battle to win over the trust of Grace, who proves to be a smart, if cagey, patient.

Atwood’s poetic observations, so canny in her previous hit drama, are evident once more.

Grace tells Jordan how many dangerous things, for instance, take place in a bed: birth, death, and a first act between men and women.

“Some call it love, others despair -merely an indignity they must suffer through,” she says.

But Jordan presses on, even if Grace is less-forthcoming about her supposed confession to murder.

Director Mary Harron brings Sarah Polley’s script to life with a dynamic engagement from the two leads. Spliced throughout is a much darker tone, befitting of the most gruesome, violent acts, underpinned throughout by questions of justice and authority. Atwood remains fascinated with submission and class.

There are even sullen faces of silent house servants who wouldn’t be out of place in Handmaid’s Tale, and as such this arrives as a pretty worthy companion. That said, this is hardly dystopian, offered instead as a murder mystery.

Sarah Gadon (11.22.63, World Without End) is perfectly contained as the title character, hiding dark secrets and concealing vulnerability. And she totally nails the Irish accent. She is ably-matched by the striking Edward Holcroft (Gunpowder, London Spy, Wolf Hall) showing patience and wit in trying to connect with his patient. Anna Paquin will also appear as housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery and there is plenty of period costume for the eye.

Of late TV is quite drawn to the relationship between analyst and criminal (indeed this could be a pioneer Mindhunter). But with Atwood’s dark stamp on this, joined by key female creatives, Alias Grace is off to a fine start.

Alias Grace premieres Friday on Netflix.

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