'Alias Grace': A fine murder mystery with a feminist subtext

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Sarah Gadon in Alias Grace. (Photo: Netflix)

Margaret Atwood is having a good year for TV adaptations of her work. First there was Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and now comes Netflix’s limited-series version of her 1996 novel, Alias Grace, which begins streaming on Friday. It stars Sarah Gadon as a 19th-century woman — and Irish-immigrant servant — accused of killing a prosperous farmer and his housekeeper in rural Canada. Gadon’s Grace Marks becomes a kind of celebrity, conferred by the sensational crime of which she’s been accused. A handsome young doctor, Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), begins a series of interviews with her while Grace is in prison — it’s like Mindhunter with bustles and high collars.

This story is based on a true event, but it’s been layered into drama by Atwood first, then by Sarah Polley’s beautifully hard-edged adaptation, and finally enlivened by the superb direction of Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol). Polley and Harron — who write and direct all six episodes, respectively — take this material and bring out the feminist subtext in Grace’s thoughts and actions. As a servant, Grace has little power over her own life; as an intelligent, imaginative woman, she feels constrained by her status and yearns for greater freedom. Could this, ask the filmmakers, be enough of a motive — and perhaps justification — for a violent crime?

Once Dr. Jordan begins interviewing her, we become as curious and confused as the doctor is: How much of what this shrewd young woman is telling us is accurate? Harron has found an original cinematic language to convey Grace’s memories, a dreamlike narrative propulsion that carries us along. The supporting cast includes Anna Paquin as the murdered housekeeper, film director David Cronenberg as an elderly colleague of Jordan’s, and Zachary Levi as a hustling peddler with secrets of his own. Levi is Alias Grace’s only false note: He seems to have walked right off the set of Chuck without adjusting for the time-period here. Sarah Gadon’s performance is transfixing. Her warm voice, as she narrates the details of her life and the crime committed, is as lulling as someone telling you a bedtime story, even as her sharp gaze might make you fear for your own life if you got too close to her.

Alias Grace is streaming now on Netflix.

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