Books · Film & Television

Alias Grace, Another Revolutionary Series from Margaret Atwood

Gadon is mesmerizing as Grace. Through the course of the series, the actress, who is thirty, grows up from a desperate young girl emigrating from Ireland, to a housemaid coming of age in Toronto, to a “celebrated murderess,” to a surprisingly composed prisoner of Kingston Penitentiary, where the real Grace served for nearly thirty years. Gadon mastered Grace’s Irish accent and also learned how to cook, clean, and sew for the part. Domestic work in the mid-nineteenth century comprised grueling physical labor, and the actress drew upon her early years as a ballet dancer for the stamina and discipline she needed.

Although there are flashbacks throughout (including many gorey scenes of the murder, as well as a tragically botched abortion), much of Alias Grace takes place in the parlor of the prison warden’s comfortable Victorian home. As Grace tells what she remembers (and attempts to recall what she does not), she attracts the professional interest — and inflames the erotic imagination — of Dr. Jordan. He is torn between his assignment (to help a local clergyman obtain a pardon for Grace), his scientific pursuits, and a growing passion for his patient.

Jordan is played by Edward Holcroft (The Sense of an Ending), and the sympathetic reverend by director David Cronenberg. Paul Gross portrays Grace’s doomed employer Mr. Kinnear; and Kerr Logan is her assumed accomplice, ruffian James McDermott. Two other, more sympathetic, male characters are Jeremiah, a peddler-tuned-hypnotist, played by Zachary Levi, and Jamie Walsh, a young servant who falls in love with Grace, played by Stephen Joffe. But as fine as these men are in their respective roles, the most compelling characters in Alias Grace (as in The Handmaid’s Tale) are women.

In addition to Gadon (who I hope will follow Handmaid’s Moss and Alexis Bledel with an Emmy nomination), Alias Grace includes fine performances from Rebecca Liddiard as housemaid Mary Whitney, Grace’s first and only friend (and the name Grace uses as her “alias” when arrested); Anna Paquin as Nancy Montgomery, Mr. Kinnear’s ill-fated housekeeper and lover; and Martha Burns as Mrs. Parkinson, Grace’s first employer. The cast is uniformly first-rate, as is the attention to period settings, costumes, and details. And, the women’s issues the series raises are still timely.

As a woman, and particularly as an uneducated, lower-class woman, Grace has been preyed upon by many, sexually and otherwise. On trial, following her attorney’s advice, she weaves an elaborate story that is devoured and regurgitated by the press. In the asylum and in prison, she tries to figure out what her jailers want to hear. By the time she meets Dr. Jordan, she’s become a master at it. It is only in a climatic scene in episode six that we finally hear Grace speak her mind; under hypnosis, she explains exactly what she did and a bit about why. And, in no uncertain terms, she lays the blame on the men who have abused her. But even then, there is mystery and doubt. Are we hearing the real Grace at last? Is she possessed by a spirit as many of her listeners believe? Or is she merely manipulating them all?

Although she might not realize it, in her heart Grace is a revolutionary. And now with Alias Grace following The Handmaid’s Tale, the revolution is being televised.

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