With the state of the world being what it is today, escapism through Margaret Atwood television properties seems to be the only form of solace we have.
This year’s spectacularly executed The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu recently swept at the Emmys and another Atwood adaption is on the horizon at another monstrous streaming service. Alias Grace is the novel every high schooler was tasked to read and its small screen adaptation shares a similarity with its Hulu counterpart in that it’s one of the best executed shows you will watch this year. The six-part miniseries aired weekly for Canadians on CBC and is currently available for a 6 hour binge globally on Netflix.
Alias Grace tells the story of Grace Marks, a young, poor Irish immigrant and domestic servant living in Upper Canada during the 19th century who finds herself accused of murdering her employer and his housekeeper. Grace insists she has no memory of the murders, however she is ultimately convicted and imprisoned at Kingston Penitentiary. The miniseries features American doctor, Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) who is commissioned with writing a report on her following a sequence of interviews where she shares her experiences leading up to and following her conviction.
Producer and writer of all six episodes, Sarah Polley, has been a fan of Grace Marks since the novel’s original release over 20 years ago and describes why she views her as “endlessly fascinating“:
“She conveyed her experience with this gallows [humor] and ladylike poise at the same time. You could never figure out how aware she was of herself; whether she was a brilliant mastermind or completely innocent was always a mystery.”
This underlying question of deception is exactly where the intrigue of this slow-burning series flourishes – is Grace Marks an innocent pawn suffering at the hands of those around her or is there a more insidious part of her we’re not seeing? As Grace relays the memories she chooses to relay with Dr. Jordan and the viewer sympathizes with her plight, there is still an inkling of suspicion present because of the doubts of those around her… Not to mention, the double murder conviction doesn’t really help her case.
Everyone’s favorite narrative technique, the unreliable narrator, is implemented brilliantly in Alias Grace as you’re given the word of a murderess in the eyes of the law to progress the story. You’re occasionally reminded that a proper investigation with science and hard facts were simply nonexistent during the time so although that label of “murderess” is hung over her head, as a viewer in 2017 you’re somewhat conflicted as to whether Grace is the criminal many believe her to be. This back and forth inner struggle is only heightened by the spectacular performances by virtually everyone in the series and gorgeous Canadian landscape that makes Alias Grace a must watch.
Can You Trust Grace Marks? Sarah Gadon’s Perfect Portrayal Makes It Difficult Not To
Fellow Toronto-native Sarah Gadon has been in the acting game for years, most notably starring alongside James Franco in last year’s Hulu miniseries, 11.22.63. She has also starred with Jake Gyllenhaal in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy and is a frequent collaborator with David Cronenberg, appearing in such films as A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis and Maps To The Stars. While she’s appeared in a number of mainstream flicks including Dracula Untold and The Amazing Spiderman 2, Gadon has seemingly excelled in smaller, more intimate roles that require her to test out every facet of her acting capabilities.
“Gadon further cements her place in the club of Canadian royalty”
With her phenomenal portrayal of Grace Marks under her belt, Gadon further cements her place in the club of Canadian royalty which boasts an impressive list of names including the Goddesses of music, Celine Dion & Shania Twain, and our 2 favorite Ryans, Gosling & Reynolds.
Legions of novel fans may already have some kind of idea as to who they believe Grace Marks is and what her live-action portrayal should contain. In my humble opinion and as a fan of the novel, Gadon excels at whatever preconceived beliefs one may have about the character. Her keen ability at expressing the most subtle of nuances is simply mesmerizing, particularly during the sequences where there is only Grace and Dr. Jordan present. As she rarely blinks when discussing her experiences, the audience is left with feeling a sense of entrapment because you are fixated on her eyes. No matter how much you try to look away, you are locked in completely which is a major testament to Gadon’s ability.
The importance of featuring the perfect Grace cannot be overlooked, if the audience doesn’t believe they are watching Grace Marks, everything will fall apart. Gadon’s performance captivates you from start to finish and working alongside a roster of talented costars is certainly a huge plus.
The Various Familiar Faces Are An Added Delight
Throughout Alias Grace, I found myself occasionally thinking “wait… is that who I think it is?” The inclusion of the following famous faces only enhanced the enjoyment of my watch particularly because they were doing such a fantastic job in their respective roles.
Zachary Levi as Jeremiah Dupont
Best known for his role as Chuck Bartowski in the NBC series Chuck, Zachary Levi stars as Jeremiah Dupont, a handsome peddler who has an affinity with carrying around enormous trunks. As a huge fan of his geekcentric series (during Halloween when I was in grade 11, I came to school dressed as Chuck in full Nerd Herd gear), seeing him with a beard initially threw me off. He portrays the travelling salesman with such charisma, you’re left wanting to go on adventures with him yet remain hesitant because this is clearly not a feasible way of life for a family.
Anna Paquin as Nancy Montgomery
Anna Paquin portrayed the sweetly Southern, vampire-loving Sookie Stackhouse on HBO’s True Blood for seven seasons. Paquin manages to possess the perfect amount of friendliness with ruthlessness in her role as Nancy Montgomery, the woman whose bonnet is full of secrets. You’re constantly wondering what the nature of her relationship is with the Master of the Household, Thomas Kinnear, and are left fascinated by the various revelations made by Grace.
Paul Gross as Thomas Kinnear
Every Canadian mother’s hunk o’ burnin’ love, Paul Gross, has matured into a silver-haired fox who, like virtually every other character in the series, harbors a sinisterness about him that makes it difficult to trust his hunky wiles. Just as needing a credible actress to portray Grace Marks is crucial for the success of the series, Thomas’ relationship with Nancy is integral to its believability factor. Thankfully both Gross and Paquin work incredibly well off each other, ultimately adding to what is already an incredibly enjoyable watch.
Margaret Atwood’s Cameo
And, of course, the Hitchcockian-esque cameo made by Queen Atwood herself. She also appeared in the pilot episode of The Handmaid’s Tale so she clearly can’t stay away from the recent adaptations of her brilliant works (not that we’re complaining). For those wondering which episode of Alias Grace the veteran author makes a brief appearance in, look no further than below:
Atwood is spotted in Episode 4 as an “outraged” church-going woman who is clearly not a fan of Grace and co.
Ensure Alias Grace Is On Your Must-Watch List
With some undeniably brilliant talent both in front of and behind the camera, Alias Grace is the perfect watch for fans of character-driven stories that want to be challenged by these complicated characters. As a Canadian and lover of fantastic TV, I consider it my patriotic duty to suggest works that tick those specific boxes, something this miniseries accomplishes and then some.