Alias Grace Review: Atwood’s Netflix Adaptation As Timely As Hulu’s
Alias Grace, the newest offering from Netflix’s streaming service, is the second accidentally perfectly timed Margaret Atwood adaptation in six months.
It was all of six months ago that I reviewed the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, the most accidentally relevant new show of the 2016-2017 season. While other shows attempted, in the wake of Trump’s election, to claim that mantle, Hulu’s release of the Atwood adaptation was by far the most timely. One might argue American Gods is a tale of immigration, and link it back to the debates about “immigrants.” One might laugh at the irony of a show like The Americans having Russian spies as their central premise while Trump’s own people worked for the Russian government. But it’s genuinely frightening to see a near future presented when the news literally shows our own government taking steps to achieve it.
It seems to be a truth that in entertainment there is never one good idea, but two had at the same time. So it goes that not one, but two streaming services commissioned competing adaptations of Atwood novels. Netflix’s Alias Grace, which arrives this coming Friday, is less ready-made for cosplay with striking costumes and does not have the potential to extend past the initial six-episode miniseries, but that does not mean it is any less powerful a statement as its predecessor.
But what is truly uncanny is how timely it is, as terrifyingly on the nose as the experience of receiving back to back messages of “Trump signs executive order allowing states to defund Planned Parenthood” followed by “Your Handmaid’s Tale screeners are available for viewing.” But where The Handmaid’s Tale tied back to politics, Alias Grace ties back to this exact moment in our cultural experience: a tale of women ruthlessly oppressed by men in power, who sexually harass and abuse them at every turn, until one steps up and attempts to tell her story.
The story of Alias Grace is based on an actual historical event, the double murder of a wealthy landowner, Thomas Kinnear, and that of his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. They were murdered by their Irish domestics, James McDermott and Grace Marks, who then attempted to flee to America. The trial at the time was like the “Trial of the Centuries” of the 1990s, like the Menendez Murders, or the Simpson trial. Nancy Montgomery was revealed to have been Kinnear’s mistress, and pregnant with his child at the time of her death.
Marks and McDermott were assumed to be lovers, though she was only sixteen and he much older. Both were sentenced to hang for their crimes, but Marks’ sentence was commuted to life in prison, and eventually, 30 years later, she was pardoned and set free.
That being said, the actual tale told here is fictionalized. The doctor, Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) who comes to see Grace (Sarah Gadon) was made up out of whole cloth, though his methods and early forays into mental health are consistent with the time period. Jeremiah, later “Dr. Jerome” (Zachary Levi) is also a fabrication, though his work in “hypnotism” and the eagerness of the upper classes to believe in such things during the Victorian era, is well documented.
But all of this is simply a device to delve into the psyche of Grace Marks and the experiences of women in the mid-1800s era. (The story spans from the mid-1830s when Grace first arrives in Canada, to the 1870s after her release.) Along the way we see the all the ways women are routinely suppressed, harassed and abused by the men around them, and in a few cases the women who enable them.
The stories begin with Grace’s own abuse at the hands of her father, but they don’t end there. Through her storytelling to Dr. Jordan, we see the tale of Grace’s friend Mary Whitney, used up and thrown away by a gentleman once she is with child.
We also see, though through the eyes of an unreliable narrator, the story of Nancy Montgomery herself. A woman who made a silent bargain to sleep with her master in hopes of being raised up to a lady, only to discover herself in a terrible limbo where no one respects her at all. Worse her position is as tenuous as one might imagine as the next pretty young maid (Grace) arrives behind her, and the Master’s interest wanders just as she too comes down with morning sickness.
Thought the end of the story is already known before we begin, there are still a decent amount of twists and turns along the way to keep glued to the screen, especially in the final two episodes. (Netflix made all six available for review.) Done as a co-production with the CBC, which aired the episodes weekly from Mid-September until this week, the cast boasts some of Canada’s finest TV actors, as well as gorgeous period piece vistas of what was once known as “Upper Canada” but it now more familiar to us as the Southern Ontario border.
Some might think that historical fiction does not sound as cutting edge or as sexy as the dystopian fantasies that currently occupy the upper echelons of “peak TV.” But Alias Grace is an extraordinarily timely reminder that the stories we see in the news day after day of men abusing their power, and women having to decide to take it and live with it in order to survive, is one that’s been with us for centuries. We may have better technologies than they. But deep down, we’ve never moved on at all.
All six episodes of Alias Grace will be available on Netflix starting Friday, November 3rd, 2017.