It’s easy to see why Netflix was so eager to land Alias Grace, the year’s second Margaret Atwood adaptation to hit a streaming service. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s story about a future patriarchal dystopia, hit at an eerily perfect time earlier this year, following a presidential election that put a man who boasted about sexually harassing women into office and gave his conservative cronies power to regulate women’s healthcare and strip the rights of minorities.
If The Handmaid’s Tale envisioned a world in which women were enslaved by men, Alias Grace gives us a history lesson that proves things have been that way all along.
The fictional period drama follows the true story of a young housemaid and immigrant named Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) who survives traumatic experiences in her youth only to find herself on trial for the murder of her employer and his housekeeper. Whether she’s guilty or not isn’t the point of the story, though the whodunit (and the whytheydunit) of the crime proves to be an intriguing enough mystery to keep you hooked for six episodes. Instead, we’re presented with an interesting look at the duality of women through the lens of one whose life has always been in the service of men who would happily abuse their power and exercise their control over her for their own amusement and gain.
Is Grace a cold-blooded killer? Maybe, but if we’re to find out the truth of anything, it won’t be from the mouths of men, like her lawyers who forced a plea upon her, or the journalists who label her as a celebrated murderess in the papers. It’ll be from her own re-telling, a yarn she spins for the benefit of young Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), who comes to psychoanalyze Grace while she’s serving out her penance in prison.
Grace loses her mother at a young age, is forced by her drunken, lecherous father to earn a living for her family, and is educated about the cruelty of the world through her various employers. Her first station serving a rich family in Toronto introduces her to Mary (Rebecca Liddiard), a young woman who becomes Grace’s confidant and friend, who teaches her about politics and rebellions and the use of red petticoats. Mary’s confident and defiant, a direct contrast to Grace’s meekness and naiveté.
It’s through Mary that Grace discovers how truly powerless a woman is, how her situation, her reputation, her very life depends on men who have no idea how to take care of themselves but believe their position and wealth afford them the right to order others to.
Gadon weaves a tale of misery and hopelessness through haunted looks and cleverly disguised intentions. We sympathize with Grace one minute – when she’s roughed up by guards in the prison, locked in coffins, verbally abused by a mercurial housekeeper named Nancy (Anna Paquin), and subjected to degrading sexual advances – and we suspect her the next, as she muses about the tragedy of a dead body staining fine carpet and a turnip on a table sparks flashbacks of a broken woman being thrown down cellar stairs.
By now we know Atwood prefers to envelop her characters in ambiguity, so while it’s fun to watch Grace toy with the interests of men who are fascinated and repelled by her story, she’s also toying with us in a way as well. Her truth is what she makes it, which is refreshing in the sense that it gives a female character authority over her own narrative for once and paints her in an honest, if not flawed light.
Grace, like many women, lives in a world where she’s told what she is – evil, a slut, a whore, a murderess. They pen her story and she lives the consequences of it. It’s only when she begins to discover a voice that has been silenced most of her life that she finds true power.