‘ALIAS GRACE’ Review
On paper, Netflix’s newest original series, Alias Grace, appears to be another product of SEO and word cloud analysis:
“People watch period pieces like Downtown Abby and fiction based on true crime.”
“Hulu had a big hit with adapting a Margaret Atwood book!”
“Women Behind Bars and Killer Women both get lots of hits among a key demo.”
Regardless if the methods for generating content like House of Cards and Stranger Things are stomach churning, the results are generally enjoyable. Alias Grace, based on Atwood’s fictionalized examination of the Irish immigrant at the center of a historical 19th-century murder, is no exception.
While a narrative primarily organized around the psychiatric evaluation (think In Treatment) of the increasingly troubled life of a young servant in Victorian Ontario may not be promising, the result is cooly intoxicating. Anchored by Sarah Gadon’s subtle performance as Grace Marks, and punctuated by stabs of del Toro-esque imagery, the miniseries creeps through finely crafted dialogue and artfully depicted domestic chores into impending doom.
In the tradition of The Yellow Wallpaper and Pan’s Labyrinth, the horror of Grace’s story is the experience of women under the patriarchy. Grace is the Last Girl fighting against a zombified male antagonist who’s resurrected in each chapter of her tale: her father, prison guards, a mistress’s son, asylum orderlies, an elderly gentleman bachelor, a co-worker.
Director Mary Harron (The Notorious Bettie Paige and American Psycho), co-writer and producer Sarah Polley (Take This
Waltz), and Atwood tell an affecting, verbally dense story. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, words are as important as images. They construct a complex character through secrets, the wisdom of dead women, recitation of scripture, and Grace’s ability to refuse the men she encounters. She ruminates on the value of being a “murderess” rather than a “murderer.” Grace is quietly submissive to a gentlewoman who sees her as an innocent novelty, then talks back to male authority figures.
Like Stranger Things’ Eleven, Grace’s tortured past and faith in friends’ words congeal into her own autonomy. The parts of the story that are not in her past are driven by the empowerment of narrating her life. Like words, the truth is slippery in the series. Grace isn’t necessarily a dishonest narrator, but one who wields the power to shape her own story, much like Patrick Bateman in Harron’s adaptation of American Psycho.
Alias Grace’s primary weakness is Edward Holcroft’s wooden performance as the psychiatric doctor interviewing Grace, although his lack of dynamics serves the cruel turn his character eventually takes. For a story so focused on women and their plight, perhaps it’s appropriate that the primary male role be so two dimensional.
Alias Grace’s heavy reliance on dialogue and voiceover probably won’t thrill most horror fans, and the lack of a clear resolution could alienate many true-crime devotees. However, for those who enjoy Gothic period pieces and a touch of violence, the series is exactly what the torture-bag-toting doctor ordered.
Sarah Gadon's as the lead and Rebecca Liddiard as Grace's friend and inspiration give award-worthy performances.
Smart writing and poetic dialogue abound in this unique story, told by women.
Horror and crime fans will enjoy the eerie mise-en-scène.
The miniseries structure works well in the Netflix model.
The plot structure is cramped in the end and slow early on.
Dr. Simon Jordan, the lead male role, serves little purpose.
Some may dislike the vague ending and feminist POV.