In the fourth episode of Alias Grace, the Netflix adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel set in 1840s Upper Canada, there’s a quietly chilling scene between young housemaid Grace (Sarah Gadon) and handyman James (Kerr Logan). Leaning over Grace at the kitchen table, James explains how the head housekeeper, Nancy (Anna Paquin), came to work at the home of their mutual employer, Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), a wealthy bachelor with a reputation for taking an interest in young servants: Nancy got pregnant while working on another farm, but the father ran off. After losing the baby during childbirth, Nancy was hired by Mr. Kinnear — who promptly began sleeping with her. “Once the horse is out of the stable it’s no good shutting the barn door,” James hisses, leaning over Grace at the kitchen table. “A turtle, ha? A woman once on her back is like a turtle in the same plight. She could scarcely turn herself right side up again, and then she’s fair game for all.”
The scene is a tidy summation of how sex was — and, often, still is — weaponized against women, particularly single, working-class women. Alias Grace, which is surprisingly fierce for a Canadian production about a nineteenth-century housemaid, is a gripping and harrowingly realistic illustration of what happens to women in a world where they bear the shame and consequences of the things men do to them.
Based on the true story of “celebrated murderess” Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant and servant accused of killing Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery — the man of the house and his housekeeper paramour — Alias Grace consists of just six 45-minute episodes, written by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron. Each episode is framed by Grace’s conversations with Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), a psychiatrist from the United States who arrives in Canada fifteen years after the murders to determine whether Grace, who has been imprisoned all that time, could be considered mentally ill at the time of the murders; if so, she may be pardoned. Through these interviews, which take place at the governor’s mansion, where Grace has been allowed to spend her days as a maid due to good behavior (and the morbid curiosity of the governor’s wife and her friends), we learn her story.
Alias Grace is the second Margaret Atwood adaptation to appear on the small screen this year, after the buzzy Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale premiered in April — and later took home the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, a first for a streaming outlet. But although Alias Grace — which debuted on Canada’s national broadcast network, the CBC, in September before landing on Netflix in early November — is the better show, it’s so far enjoyed a quieter, if still uniformly positive, reception.
In a way, that’s appropriate. Aesthetically and tonally, Alias Grace is a more conservative show than The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes place in a future dystopia in which fertile women are forced to bear children for the heads of the theocratic Republic of Gilead — formerly known as the United States of America. Hulu’s adaptation, helmed by showrunner and longtime cinematographer Reed Morano (who directed the first three episodes), emphasizes the spectacle of this world: Striking overhead shots capture scores of handmaids dressed in their mandatory red cloaks and white bonnets, arranged in circles or rows; a smoky, yellow-tinged light infuses the indoor spaces, as if to emphasize the alien nature of this nightmarish future.
Alias Grace, in contrast, has a more direct, unfussy visual language. (It’s a fundamentally Canadian approach to this story; in Survival, her groundbreaking 1972 critical survey of Canadian literature, Atwood argues that if the quintessential theme in American literature is that of the frontier, for Canada, it’s the notion of survival. The Canadian Dream, in other words, isn’t one of endless expansion but of simply getting through the winter.) While The Handmaid’s Tale beguiles with its arresting look, after a few episodes, the effect wears off (or it did for me, at least), and the plot sags. But Alias Grace holds the viewer in a continual state of tension. The most prominent aesthetic flourishes are the violent, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them flashbacks; Harron repeatedly, and without warning, slips in lightning-quick cuts to Grace’s time in a mental asylum, where she was taken after her conviction, and where she was brutally raped by the wards; we hear her screams, and see the wards lunging at her while she’s strapped in a chair, her wrists and ankles restrained.
These flashbacks appear throughout the show, as if to suggest the trauma of abuse is always just beneath the surface of Grace’s mind. Other images pop up repeatedly, like one of Nancy in a pink dress, holding a basket of apples and waving to Grace as she arrives at Mr. Kinnear’s farm — and another of Nancy being tossed down the cellar stairs. But for most of its run time, Alias Grace emphasizes the hardships of Grace’s life, and in a larger sense, the life of a girl of her “station.” It’s basically five hours of watching women cook and clean. As Grace tells Dr. Jordan, over a montage of household duties, “We have to clean up our own messes and yours into the bargain. In that way, you are like children. You do not have to think ahead or worry about the consequences of what you do.” Dr. Jordan’s ignorance — and his delicate disposition — is a bit of a running gag; the description of her harrowing passage from Ireland to Canada alone almost makes him sick. Grace smiles to herself as he cracks a window.
The casual violence that awaits Grace at every turn — particularly from those, like her father and the wards at the asylum, who are supposedly there to protect her — is matter-of-fact, simply the consequence of being born in a female body, one that intertwines sex with death. When Grace gets her period for the first time, before she comes to work for Mr. Kinnear, she holds up her bloody fingers in shock, sure she’s about to die; her fellow housemaid, Mary Whitney (the lively Rebecca Liddiard), laughs and tells her it only means she’s a woman now. Later, Mary discovers she’s pregnant — the result of an affair with the eldest son of the house, who gives her five dollars and tells her if she wants a quick end to her troubles, she should drown herself. Instead, she gets an abortion, which leaves her bloodied and mutilated, and dead by morning.
In the final episode, Grace reflects on how intrigued Dr. Jordan became when she spoke of the abuses she endured: “Your cheeks would flush … and if you had ears like a dog they would’ve been pricked forward with your eyes shining and your tongue hanging out.” And yet the show itself resists this panting approach. Like its protagonist, Alias Grace is steely-eyed about the reality of a woman’s life, and it never replicates Dr. Jordan’s prurient interest by showing us explicit scenes of Grace being sexually abused. (Nor does it show so much as a hint of cleavage from Gadon; she looks beautiful, but not sexualized, in her conservative 19th-century dresses.) As Grace tells Dr. Jordan, the things that men think of with titillated excitement often inspire dread in women: “You may think of a bed as a peaceful thing, sir, and to you it may mean rest and comfort and a good night’s sleep. But it isn’t so for everyone. There are many dangerous things that may take place in a bed.”
She says this plainly, not with horror-movie menace; it’s simply common sense. For me, that’s the ultimate appeal of Alias Grace: the subdued, no-shit narrative approach to Grace’s story, and Gadon’s performance of quiet strength. At this moment, when every day brings a new, breathless exposé about men’s systemic abuse of power, it’s a particularly satisfying slant to a story of the constant cruelty women have historically endured — and borne the blame for. This barrage of revelations may shock some. For others, it’s the oldest story in the book.