This year, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale became the first streaming show to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. Netflix quickly followed with Alias Grace, another adaptation of a seminal Margaret Atwood novel. Set in the 1840s, the latter production’s young female characters reflect the handmaids in the former with their white caps and demure garments. But where The Handmaid’s Tale is an imagined look ahead to a future society in which women have no say in their fates, Alias Grace is an unflinching look at the past when women faced the same circumstances.
The facts can be found with a two-second Wikipedia search: Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) was an impoverished domestic servant who had immigrated to Canada with her family. Along with a man named James McDermott (Kerr Logan), she was convicted of murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. After 30 years of imprisonment, Marks was set free, and was never heard from again.
Atwood, one of Canada’s most prominent writers, took that historic tale and crafted a wonderful fictionalized biography around it, in which Grace Marks leaves the penitentiary every day to be interviewed by a psychologist in the house of the governor, where she’s been hired as kind of a domestic oddity. He’s trying to ascertain whether she is deserving of early release, and so asks her to walk him through her entire past.
That’s the lovely frame of our story: Grace weaves tales from the cozy parlor as she works on various mending and needlework, her lilting accent making everything sound like a mystical legend. But her realities are much harsher than that, and director Mary Harron (American Psycho) makes bold choices that don’t shy away from any of the painful details: the horrifying eight-week trip across the ocean in the bottom of a boat, surrounded by the worst bodily secretions and fluids imaginable; the frequent sexual assaults in the asylum; tortures at the penitentiary that include getting locked into a vertical box the size of a coffin with a peephole; the bleak fate of what would happen to a domestic girl who got pregnant, with absolutely nowhere to turn.
Like Atwood, Harron and executive producer Sarah Polley are also Canadian, and they imbue this spectacular production with love of their country (the rural scenery is stunning, with many shots framed like paintings), as well as a striking artistic view. Grace’s tales, as in the book, are filled with superstitions and legends, and Alias Grace is steeped in that mysticism. Windows must be opened after someone dies to let the soul free. Grace sleepwalks and sees bloody headless angels looming over her from the trees; in the morning she finds her crisp laundered linens on the golden branches, and the effect is just as striking. There are also frequent references to the recent 1837 Canadian rebellion, which attempted to make it easier for the lower classes to break out of their grim circumstances, like the idealized democracy-drenched residents of the States.
The creators of this remarkable series are also, notably, all women (Polley wrote the script based on Atwood’s book), which lends a never-preachy but realistic depiction of the thankless plight of these immigrant women. Handmaid’s Tale shows us what life would be like without women’s rights; in Alias Grace, those rights don’t even exist yet. The importance of birth control and safe abortions can not be emphasized strongly enough when witnessing the nightmarish back alleys of Alias Grace. Like Handmaid’s, it’s a stern reminder of everything today’s women have to lose, and how little conservative legislation it would take to lose everything.
As Grace herself ponders at one point, what prospects does she really have? She will always be a servant, being barked at by some lady of the house or another, doing the jobs that no one else would want to do. Sarah Gadon, last seen as Sadie in 11.22.63, is nothing less than astonishing here as young Grace. The series begins as Grace lists all the different things people call her, and as she does, her facial expression morphs into each one. Edward Holcroft perfectly portrays the increasingly fascinated psychiatrist Grace tells her tales to. And Zachary Levi is a revelation as Jeremiah, the charismatic street peddler and charlatan who takes advantage of the upcoming mysticism trend to become a hypnotist.
When Grace is hired by Nancy to come work at Thomas Kinnear’s estate, her unhappy tide briefly seems to be turning. But Anna Paquin soon reveals the unpleasant territorial nature of Nancy, the housekeeper who fancies herself the lady of the manor because of her close relationship with its owner. Paul Gross, late of Tales Of The City and Due South, is unrecognizable as Kinnear, a rough, roguish man who at least appears to be kind to Grace, while Logan’s McDermott embodies the base, animal instincts of men that Grace was constantly surrounded by and fighting off. As Grace tells Dr. Jordan at the start of her story, in six months, she’ll be the only one left alive, and Harron’s frequent dramatic cuts to bloody bodies in the cellar and screams from the asylum help inject the domestic saga with a ceaseless, fascinating dread.
Was Grace Marks guilty? It’s the draw of the book and the series, but the deeper we get into Grace’s life, the less it matters. Like the doctor, we are smitten by her stories, of a not-that-far-away time when circumstances were unimaginably dire.