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  • Dec 11 2017 The Atlantic

    The 20 Best TV Shows of 2017

    The new and returning series that stood out the most

    By Sophie Gilbert

    How to summarize television in 2017? While no descriptor captures the year’s diverse offerings, one word crops up more than any other: Netflix. The streaming service’s throw-content-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks strategy generated more than 1,000 hours of original TV and movies this year, and though plenty were duds, Netflix also seemed to spawn more critical hits than any other provider.

    What this year might have lacked in offbeat ingenuity (Atlanta and Fleabag are scheduled to return next year), it made up for in star power, including an array of heavyweights from the film world. Jean-Marc Vallée. Reese Witherspoon. Nicole Kidman. Spike Lee. Sarah Polley. David Fincher. James Franco. Steven Soderbergh. Justin Simien. With seemingly endless resources on offer alongside almost total artistic freedom, it’s hard not to see still more creative talent being drawn toward TV in 2018 and beyond.

    In the interests of discovery (and because so many of the year’s most intriguing shows were debuts), the list below pays most attention to 10 exceptional new shows of 2017, a staggering eight of which premiered in the U.S. on streaming services. It also applauds 10 stellar returning shows. After all, 2018 (and Netflix’s record-breaking $8 billion budget) is just around the corner.

    Alias Grace

    Sarah Polley’s six-part CBC/Netflix adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel came in the midst of a historic reckoning with the abuse and harassment of women. Among the questions this moment provoked: How can stories force people to hear them? The Canadian actress Sarah Gadon gives an incandescent performance as Grace Marks, a convicted 19th-century murderess whose delicate bearing and absorbing narrative convince many of her innocence. More interesting than the reliability of Grace’s stories, though, is the way she transforms them into a kind of agency she otherwise lacks.

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  • Dec 04 2017 Village Voice

    The Steely-Eyed Ferocity of “Alias Grace”

    by 

    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.

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  • Nov 28 2017

    The Top 10 Television Shows of 2017

    It didn’t take any extra effort to produce a top 10 list in which every series has at least one strong female lead character, powerfully examined in detail. But in a year like 2017, these characters, and the roles they played, felt more vital than ever.

    Film actors like Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman asserted their present-day independence from the film industry on the frank and powerful Big Little Lies. On Feud, similar issues resonated on a meta level, with two Oscar winners playing two past Oscar winners who were never given the opportunity to meaningfully move their A-list careers forward. (Imagine what we might have gotten if the real Bette Davis and Joan Crawford could have participated in the 2017 TV landscape.) Issa Rae and Sarah Gadon, both possessed of endlessly mutable faces and the imagination to know just how many emotions those faces could convey, dazzled me on Insecure and on Alias Grace. Carrie Coon emerged as the star The Leftovers had really been about all along. And even pop star Katy Perry used her 96-hour livestream, ostensibly a self-promotional tool, to come into her own as an artist and as a thinking person.

    This leads me to my number one show of the year, Better ThingsAs I have written previously, the second season of Better Things’s greatness seems to emanate more from Pamela Adlon, its sole director and its star, than from the man credited as writer or co-writer on each of its episodes to air in 2017 — Louis C.K. Just weeks ago, the comedian was accused of sexual harassment by five different women. C.K. confirmed that the allegations against him are true. There’s an argument to honor the survivors brave enough to come forward by getting rid of the creator’s work. But doing that with Better Things (not a project headlined by C.K.) erases the work of Adlon, the gifted author who has more, still, to say. And I cannot get over Adlon’s own titanic work in producing a show that so powerfully repudiates the sort of male hegemony C.K. exploited for too long. On Better Things, women rule, but conditionally — men lie in wait to try and exploit, to take credit or take money or take emotional resources. And, ever onward, the family of women Adlon leads pushes forward.

    Similarly, I’d wondered about potential bad associations if I’d included Amazon’s I Love Dick, a show whose title is said to have been grist for a lewd pun by former programming head Roy Price, fired after a pattern of harassment. Instead, let that show’s bold vision of the power of rage and of unity reign—and marvel at the fact that the show emerged out of an era that seems to be deconstructing itself before our eyes.

    The shows on this list, newly opening up the subjectivity and perspective of half the world, could only exist in a world of limitless possibilitythe sort that cable networks and streaming services have come to represent in the television landscape.

    I hope this isn’t a blip or a one-off, that these shows give rise to yet more like them, and that this list shines a light on some of them whose work you may not previously have seen, and that next year there’ll be yet more great art celebrating the pain and rage and joy all segments of the population feel to choose from.

    10. The Deuce, HBO

    On HBO’s exploration of the birth and evolution of the sex trade in America, sex workers are allowed to be fully human, not just tropes but people with wit and literary tastes and relationships that are transactional but real. Maggie Gyllenhaal, as a worker who dreams of taking control of her circumstances, shines with both a dash of melancholy and with hard-eyed ambition; Dominique Fishback and Pernell Walker bring vividity and thought to their roles too. Elsewhere, barkeeps (including James Franco in a double role) and pimps, gay men feeling newly liberated and vice cops who grudgingly round up escorts all form part of a fascinating mosaic. This is a story about seventies New York, but it also comes to be a look at how desire and the economy have shaped one another, and the fantasy and real lives of Americans.

    9. Witness World Wide, YouTube

    Notionally, Katy Perry’s four-day livestream—in which she lived in a camera-rigged house, eating, sleeping, and declaiming for an online audience—was meant to promote her album Witness. I’m not sure how effective it was in that goal, but Witness World Wide made several provocative, if often unintentional, statements. One was about the expectations placed upon celebrities in the hyper-mediated age. Perry, in an attempt to compete with her class of ante-upping pop singer, opened herself up to a punishing amount of scrutiny.

    A star known for outsized costuming and superhuman spectacle abandoning both made for endlessly riveting viewing; it was almost too easy to lose an hour watching her undergo a yoga lesson or eat breakfast. The show was further fascinating for Perry’s evaluating what it means for an artist to be political now. The singer, a Clinton campaign surrogate in 2016, seemed throughout the stream to be downcast and in an unnameable sort of pain, less interested in the music she was putting out than in opportunities to discuss concepts like privilege or her own history of cultural appropriation. Visitor after visitor popped through her house, but a mood of confusion and anxiety haunted the enterprise. Perry’s prolix, at times inarticulate, days-long examination of her own motives and actions was a strange choice for a would-be world-conquering diva, but it made for television perfect for a moment at which so many are trying to find a new narrative frame to understand the world. And the format of live-streaming suited our era, in which getting to know what a celebrity is thinking at any moment is a fiercely defended right.

    8. Mindhunter, Netflix

    This crime procedural seems at first to be more style than substance—another look into evil by a director, David Fincher, who’s long resided in the shadows. But as it unfolds, this show, depicting the burgeoning use of psychological profiling in the 1970s FBI, builds to something that feels radical for a crime story: A show that respects criminals enough to treat them as humans and not just perps, and finds its dark pleasures in that very humanity. Anna Torv shines as Dr. Wendy Carr, a coolly observant psychologist who aids the early head-shrinking work of two of the Bureau’s agents (Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany) all while holding part of herself back. More compelling still was Cameron Britton playing the spree killer Edmund Kemper, a pleasant-natured fellow who was so good at getting away with murder that he ended up just turning himself in. Now he opens his psyche, fertile with dark knowledge, to investigators. Watching them travel seventies America to meet him and others like him is as sharply intriguing, and as fun, as procedural TV gets.

    7. I Love Dick, Amazon

    Chris Kraus (Kathryn Hahn) is, in her telling, “straddling 40-ish,” and she’s trapped in a marriage characterized more by inertia and a vague sense of intellectual engagement than by lust or delight. It’s only after meeting Dick (Kevin Bacon), a sculptor of massive, phallic structures, that Chris comes to feel alive again, in no small part because Dick doesn’t seem to respect or like women in general or her in particular. Soon, she’s sending him intense and intensely unwanted letters. The war within—the unresolvable debate between the mind and the body—is staged here inside Chris, and Hahn brilliantly shows us her frustration, and her overriding need. It’s all set against the backdrop of an artists’ colony in Marfa, Tex., and the show gradually expands its aperture to include all sorts of desire. An often-messy and deeply literary show (adapted from the real Kraus’s novel), I Love Dick fascinates as it asks a crucial question: Why do we want what we want?

    6. Alias Grace, Netflix

    The novelist Margaret Atwood was onstage at the Emmys this year thanks to The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of her dystopian novel. But Alias Grace was a yet more creatively successful adaptation, taking Atwood’s portrait of an Ontario woman imprisoned for an 1843 murder and probing the case’s edges and its complicated relevance. Grace (Sarah Gadon) begins her time as a servant as a naive and humble immigrant. Interrogated, years into her imprisonment, about her role in killing her master and his mistress, she alternates between moods: arrogant, manipulative, wounded, and strong. Gadon shows us Grace’s acute understanding that she’s always being watched by shifting her way of being from moment to moment, entering a new alias just by shifting her jaw or her gaze. It’s a performance that centers a strikingly directed (by Mary Harron) and elegantly written (by Sarah Polley) miniseries—one whose ambition, like that of a great novel, is surprisingly capacious.

    5. Insecure, HBO

    Watching a comedy series click into a higher gear—as, elsewhere on this list, in the case of the year’s top show—is one of television’s greater joys. So it was with Insecure, a show that followed a strong 2016 debut by hitting a whole new level. Insecure follows Issa (actor and show co-creator Issa Rae) as she fumbles through a job she cares about just enough to know she’s falling short and a love life where every good-in-the-moment choice is followed by the gutting realization she’s erred badly. Rae leads a stunningly gifted ensemble, including Yvonne Orji, Natasha Rothwell, and Amanda Seales as pals who only seem to have it together by comparison. Their dramas and their laughs of consolation take place against the backdrop of Inglewood, a city within Los Angeles whose pulsing life and character exists under threat of gentrification. Insecure is at once pause-and-rewind-it hilarious and a show with a great deal on its mind. I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

    4. Feud: Bette and Joan, FX

    At once a note-perfect recreation of early-1960s movieland glamour and a vividly imaginative scrawl in the margins of pop history, prolific show creator Ryan Murphy’s miniseries assayed the legends, and the lives, of two great stars. Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) had prestige but little patience for the duties imposed upon a performer; Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) won her fans through pulpy suffering onscreen and was endlessly willing to play martyr. The pair, both nursing wounds over having been left behind by movies, were bound to butt heads when working together on the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and Feud shows both a sophisticated yet light touch with character psychology and a deep understanding of the ways in which the men in the entertainment industry exacerbated the sparring to keep both actresses down. By the time it reaches its aching conclusion, the show is so much more than bickering. It’s a Feud for the soul, a powerful statement about Hollywood’s entrenched misogyny that gives both its title icons their humanity back.

    3. The Leftovers, HBO

    The blooming of this dark drama into one of television’s oddest delights has been for three seasons something remarkable to behold. The Leftovers is premised upon a mysterious event that led to the disappearance of two percent of the world’s population. Its seemingly unyielding wall of grief did yield, to the strange possibilities that a story dealing with both the supernatural and the most ratcheted-up levels of human emotion can reveal. The final season of the show featured more astounding acting than ever by Carrie Coon, playing a woman whose never-abating pain over her missing husband and children still surprises viewers. The show was also imaginatively raucous, less afraid than ever to ask what a world so divergent from ours might look like but rigorously faithful to its sense of that reality. The result, a world gone mad tearing itself apart, ended up suiting this moment better than can have been expected. A show about grief became, among so many other things, a solace.

    2. Big Little Lies, HBO

    Big Little Lies came into focus slowly, as viewers learned to look past the placid coastal vistas and star power to see a raw look at the dynamics of power. The show asks how that power is taken away from women by the men who purport to love them, and how it can be reclaimed through the radical choice to collaborate rather than compete. That Big Little Lies, which seeded its points slowly through a seven-episode run, deceived some of its audience into expecting a soap opera about beautiful people’s beautiful problems seems rather like the point. Its characters, too, hide behind carapaces of glamour, or industriousness, or idealized motherhood, hiding figurative or literal hurt. As lawyer and spousal-abuse victim Celeste, Nicole Kidman showed the willingness to plumb human darkness that’s long made her one of the world’s most adventurous actresses; elsewhere, a cast including standouts Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern brought life to emotions near-impossible to talk about. Those emotions include regret and rage. At the show’s satisfying conclusion, they finally come to include the pleasure of helping others, and allowing oneself to be helped too.

    1. Better Things, FX

    There’s something elemental about Better Things. Its protagonist, Sam (played by Pamela Adlon) is perpetually pushed to the point of extreme vulnerability by her exhaustion: at being a single mother, a woman trying to keep an acting career going after having turned 40, a person. Sometimes she lashes out, as when she verbally takes down the disappointing men in her life in monologues that merge hilarity with real ire, or when she demands her three daughters stage a funeral for her to demonstrate their appreciation—for once. And sometimes, she just sits and thinks. Adlon, who directed every episode of Better Things’s 2017 second season, is mesmerizingly alive onscreen—and being alive is the universal burden that Better Things makes painfully personal. The organizing events of contemporary American life—parenthood, trying to find love, settling into a career in which one’s talents can shine—have for Sam, as for so many, come with no small share of angst. That Adlon illuminates this story, somehow makes it funny, and shoots it through with hope and with love makes Better Thingstelevision’s very best show in, and for, a challenging year.

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  • Nov 15 2017 Cosmopolitan

    If you’re not watching Alias Grace on Netflix, you should be. Here’s why…

    It's based on a novel written by Margaret Atwood, who also wrote Handmaid's Tale

    By Naomi Gordon

    If you’re still fearing for Offred’s fate in The Handmaid’s Tale and require another timely Margaret Atwood adaption while you feverishly await season 2 , then blessed be for Alias Grace.

    The chilling six-part Netflix series adapted from Atwood’s 1996 novel tells the story of Grace Marks, a real-life Irish immigrant and domestic servant in Canada who, in 1843, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the brutal murders of her employer and his housekeeper.

    But the story goes deeper than making us question whether or not Grace was capable of committing the gruesome crimes, for which she was confined to an asylum, and pardoned some thirty years later, while her supposed accomplice James McDermott (played by Kerr Logan) was hanged.

    As Grace and the other female servants are endlessly subjected to abuse and sexual assault by men in power and expected to remain silent, the series couldn’t be more relevant in the wake of the allegations of sexual harassment being made in Hollywood and Westminster.

    “I could have never have anticipated that all of the allegations surrounding Harvey [Weinstein] and the other abusers would have come out at the same time as the show,” Sarah Gadon, who plays Grace, recently told Harper’s Bazaar UK.

    “I would have never have predicted that, but I knew that the show would resonate with women especially, because it’s something we’ve all been subjected to – the power imbalance.”

    And you’d be hard pushed to find a more gripping performance this year than Sarah’s mesmerising turn as the enigmatic Grace – which is already generating Golden Globe and Emmy award predictions.

    The 30-year-old Maps to the Stars actress plays Grace at 15 and beyond, as she unfolds the horrors of what she has had to endure in the lead-up to the murders to Dr. Simon Jordan (played by British actor Edward Holcroft).

    And while The Handmaid’s Tale gave us a glimpse of a terrifying future where women are forced into sexual servitude, at a time where women’s reproductive rights are being threatened by Donald Trump’s administration, Alias Grace provides us with an unsettling look back.

    The Handmaid’s Tale underlines the anxieties we’re feeling about gender politics and immigration and reproductive rights, things we are feeling collectively as a society and things we want to address.” Sarah continued.

    “And The Handmaid’s Tale gives us a look into the future of what’s ahead, and Alias Grace is this look back from where we’ve come from, and right now we’re in the precious space in the middle deciding how we reconcile our past and move on in to the future. It’s very relevant that both shows are out right now.”

    Watch it now – but perhaps keep the light on for the final episode…

    Alias Grace – also starring Oscar-winning Anna Paquin, Zachary Levi and David Cronenberg – is available to watch on Netflix.

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  • Nov 13 2017 W Magazine

    Alias Grace Star Sarah Gadon on Why Grace Marks’s Story Matters So Much Right Now

    In 1843, Grace Marks was convicted of murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, in Upper Canada. She was just 16 years old. In the first episode of Alias Grace, the new Netflix adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 historical novel, Grace, who is played by Sarah Gadon and acts as the protagonist and narrator, peers at herself in the mirror. Her expression transforms as she narrates the scene, echoing the same sentiment as the Emily Dickinson poem that serves as an epigraph for the show—that below one version of a person lies another, and another, and another. “I think of all the things that have been written about me,” she says. She has been called “inhuman female demon,” “innocent victim,” “quarrelsome,” “a good girl with a pliable nature,” “soft in the head.” And she wonders: “How can I be all these different things at once?”

    The new miniseries Alias Grace, written by Sarah Polley of Stories We Tell and directed by Mary Harron of American Psycho and which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, wrestles with this dynamic both internally and externally. It examines how trauma—and especially sexual violence—impacts the psyche, and how that is projected onto one woman’s interactions with those around her, especially men. The series plays out through a series of interviews between Grace and Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), a psychiatrist whose insights could exonerate Grace.

    As Grace recounts the events leading up to the murders, it becomes increasingly unclear to what extent she is obfuscating (“‘And so forth’ is all you are entitled to,” she says at one point, refusing to elucidate further about her daily chores), versus what she truly cannot remember. In some ways, watching Alias Grace is like staring into a void: As it unfolds, it becomes clear the show, and the interviews between Grace and Dr. Jordan, will never reach a satisfying conclusion.

    As Grace, Sarah Gadon, the 30-year-old Canadian actress best known for her work with David Cronenberg (who also has a small but memorable part in the series), executes a crisp northern Irish accent, performs the household chores (milking the cows, mending garments, collecting eggs, scrubbing the floors) expected of a housemaid, and balances Grace’s competing personae all at once. “It’s the hardest job I ever had,” Gadon admitted recently on the phone from Toronto. We discussed the grueling four-month-long shoot and the extensive preparations that went into it, Alias Grace’s renewed political relevance, and why it’s proved a tough project to follow.

    How did you get the part?

    I heard Sarah [Polley] was doing the adaptation and had the opportunity to sit down with Sarah and Mary [Harron] and talk about the project. I asked Sarah, “Why did you want to adapt this book?” And she said, “I read it when I was 17 and I tried to get the rights then, and it’s something that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. I think it’s somehow informed everything I’ve ever done.” The following day, we met and I auditioned. We did three scenes a number of different ways, and when I left, I flew to LA, and when I landed, I got a call saying, “You know, Sarah and Mary really want you to do one of the scenes one other way.” I thought, ‘Really?’ We worked on it for so long. But it was, I think, an introduction to what playing this part would be—having to go back and do that additional scene just one more time fit the notion that playing Grace was this endless, bottomless pit of discovery, and that my work would never really be done.

    What scene was it?

    It was the opening scene with Dr. Jordan, Simon, when he gives her the apple. We’d done it a number of different ways, and they just said, we want to do one that’s completely innocent and completely, and I thought, okay, yeah, sure, so I did it and then I got the part, which was great.

    Speaking of apples, how many were sacrificed to get that scene with Mary Whitney in Episode 2 right?

    [Laughs] Not that many, actually. I think it was only eight or nine apples. I think it was four apples in the scene, and we only did it a couple of times. So yeah, it wasn’t that—not many apples were harmed in the making of that scene.

    How did you discuss the project with Margaret Atwood once you had signed on?

    I was really intimidated to meet Margaret. The most important thing that Margaret imparted to me was that the most important thing was to maintain her ambiguity. That was the most important thing in terms of honoring her memory and the book, really, so that was something that really informed the way that Mary and I created Grace.

    How did you unravel all of that? Grace is such an unreliable narrator, and in the end we really come away still unsure whether she did it or what role she even played in the murders at all. Did you have to construct for yourself what was true or untrue? Or was it totally ambiguous for you?

    No, it wasn’t. In terms of tackling the ambiguity, in the interview sequences between Simon and Grace, for example, we decided to come up with several different versions of Grace. When we shot each scene, we did a take of each of those versions so that Mary could then have room in the edits to piece together an ambiguous character. That was a really interesting way to work because obviously you have to have a lot of trust. But then, of course, in the flashbacks, I’m not really playing an ambiguous person. Everything up until the murder, I feel as if I’m playing all the actions truthfully. Her relationship with Mary—it’s a very honest, real relationship. The way she interacts with Nancy is very real and grounded, and same with Kinnear, so I think there are moments where I wasn’t playing those different versions.

    It’s meta, because those really honest interactions are refracted through the present Grace recounting them. Who were the different versions of Grace?

    [Laughs.] Mary and I joke around because she would, she liked to call them Good Grace, Bad Grace, and Neutral Grace. Obviously, our Bad Grace was guilty, our Good Grace was innocent, and our Neutral Grace was this character that Mary and I had talked about—the idea of playing her as somebody who’s already dead, as if she’s speaking almost posthumously, which is kind of something that happens to people who have been through the ringer where their identity is almost taken from them. It’s almost as if they’re the walking dead.

    How did you film the hypnotism scene at the end?

    It was something that I was really scared about because it was like a 20-page sequence. It cuts back and forth between the Kinnear farmhouse and the present where the actual hypnotism is going on. I asked Mary and Sarah, “Are we going to shoot up until a certain point in the flashback and then cut? Will I have time to reset and prepare for the next chunk?” And they said, “No, we want to shoot it all, including the voice-over, as one long scene.” I thought that was just terrifying because I was going to be under a veil talking for 20 pages in a different voice. I said, “Are you sure it’s a good idea that I go into Mary Whitney’s voice?” Sarah called Margaret, and it was Margaret who confirmed that it was really important that Grace was speaking in Mary Whitney’s voice. So then I had to prepare the scene, really, as Mary Whitney [Grace’s best friend, who dies early in the series]. I listened to Rebecca [Liddiard, who plays Mary] and played around with my dialect coach to help access the voice. I practiced and practiced and practiced to be able to shoot it almost like it was a play.

    What sort of research did you do, especially in terms of the physical stuff? I read that you had to actually milk a cow and do the sewing and all that kind of stuff.

    It was really important to Mary that I did everything for real because Margaret is so descriptive about everything that a housemaid did at that time. Mary and I both read Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which is this fantastic book from the era about different positions of the house and what each housemaid did. Then, I went to a pioneer reenactment camp called Black Creek Pioneer Village just outside of Toronto. I learned how to navigate a Victorian kitchen; I learned how to milk a cow and light a hearth fire and churn butter and pluck chickens. It’s just brutal, because you have to do all this physical labor in all of this confining clothing. I had to learn to sew by hand because Grace is making a quilt throughout her interviews with Simon. I also read Susanna Moodie’s Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush, which Margaret quotes a few times in the actual book.

    A lot of the conversation around this show, obviously like that around The Handmaid’s Tale, has been about its political relevance—here, how little has changed in terms of gender relations since the mid-19th century, even in very subtle ways. I was wondering if you were thinking about that contemporary resonance as you were making the series and as you were inhabiting this world?

    I certainly don’t think I could have predicted everything that’s happening right now, but we were shooting when the election was happening and we were shooting when Trump was elected, so absolutely—those kinds of things were definitely on our minds while we were making the show. I think that one of the things that I find so interesting about our show is that as much as it is an exploration of what it does to the psyche when you are repressed as a woman, it also explores what it does when you are a man, to be repressed by the expectations of your time. That’s explored through Dr. Simon Jordan and everything that he’s experiencing—the whole storyline of him having these sexual feelings for Grace, not being allowed to explore them, but then being allowed to take them out on his housekeeper Mrs. Humphrey and the way he uses her because she’s a woman. Their dynamic is, it’s okay for him to abuse her. It’s a really interesting thing that I think speaks to what is happening, this hierarchy of women and who we are allowed to treat in certain ways and who we aren’t.

    Now, having filmed it during the election, both politically and in light of the various allegations of sexual misconduct pouring out of Hollywood right now, has that changed how you view the role of the series and its prescience?

    The whole notion of exploring this woman who’s very repressed and everything that’s going on in her life has this kind of resonance because people aren’t thinking about their own repression or their own experiences with abuse and harassment privately—we’re thinking about women with this massive collective consciousness right now. It’s amplified the meaning of the show and I think it really is starting to strike a chord with people that goes beyond Grace’s story. It connects to their own story.

    You’ve got The Death and Life of John F. Donovan coming up. Can you tell me about your role in that?

    Xavier [Dolan] is obsessed with Roswell, and the film revolves around this man who has become famous for being on this Roswell-esque show. I play one of the girls from that show, and it was a hilarious, fun time to make that film. We actually re-shot the opening sequence to Roswell. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Roswell, it’s pretty hilarious. I really loved working with Xavier. I think because he was an actor, he is so cognizant of the tone that’s created on set. He’s always walking around with a boom box playing music, and he’s so involved in the scenes it almost feels like he’s in them. So it was really cool.

    What were the main boom box tracks?

    You won’t even believe it, but he loves Titanic, and he loves with Celine Dion, so during a lot of the scenes, he’s playing “My Heart Will Go On.” And for the opening of our Roswell, he played the opening credit music to Roswell, and then, because it kind of takes place in the early-’00s, he would always play Blink-182 and all this music from the early-’00s.

    What else are you working on? What are you looking to do moving forward?

    I’m not sure. I feel like this character has really just consumed my life for the past two years. I haven’t been able to shake it. The experience [of Alias Grace] was so unique and challenging and incredible that it’s been tough to move on and accept something that’s going to be anything less. So I’m trying to be patient and wait for the next thing that’s going to be special. Sarah Polley has become a wonderful mentor to me, and she is always telling me there’s so much power in saying no to things. So I’m trying to say no to things that aren’t going to be incredible.

     

    Anna Paquin, Sarah Gadon, Margaret Atwood, and Sarah Polley on the set of Alias Grace, 2017.

    taken by Sabrina Lantos

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  • Nov 12 2017 Harper's Bazaar

    Netflix’s Alias Grace Is the Best New TV Show of the Year

    Meet Sarah Gadon, the actress tasked with playing a "celebrated murderess" in the Margaret Atwood adaptation.

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  • Nov 11 2017 The Atlantic

    Alias Grace Is True Crime Through the Female Gaze

    The new Netflix drama—an adaptation of the novel by Margaret Atwood—is must-watch TV for the current moment.

    By Sophie Gilbert

    In a scene in the second episode of Netflix’s Alias Grace, Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) comforts her best friend, Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), who’s in extraordinary pain following an illegal abortion. Both are teenagers and servant girls in Upper Canada. Mary’s been abandoned by the wealthy man who promised to marry her but who now wants her to drown herself to spare him any shame. “Grace, I am so angry,” Mary says, shaking. “I am so very angry.” To comfort her, Grace talks about the political rebellion in Canada, where revolutionaries are demanding liberty and independence. “They don’t have it yet, but they will,” she says. “Because we didn’t lose. We just haven’t won yet.”

    Alias Grace is the second TV adaptation of a Margaret Atwood book this year to uncannily predict the moment it landed in. The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s luminous, Emmy-winning portrayal of a near-future dystopia where fertile women are forced into reproductive slavery, debuted in April, as many American women were considering their reproductive rights under the Trump/Pence administration. Alias Grace debuted on Canada’s CBC in September but arrived on Netflix last Friday, in the midst of one of the biggest confrontations of systematic sexual abuse and harassment in recent history. Women of all different ages, in a vast range of industries, are speaking openly, and angrily, about their experiences, often for the very first time. And these manifold stories, these abundant personal wounds, are coming together, piece by piece, to reveal a larger reality, like the construction of a patchwork quilt.

    For those who’ve read the 1996 book, it might not seem like a perfect fit. Alias Grace is a story set in Canada in the middle of the 19th century, based on the real life of a convicted murderess, Grace Marks, and it rests on the ambiguity of whether she’s innocent or guilty, lying or telling the truth. But the veracity of Grace’s stories, Atwood seems to argue, is less significant than comprehending the fault lines of her life, and of the lives of women like her. Grace is tyrannized by an abusive father, works countless hours as a maid for a pittance, and is constantly forced to negotiate her own safety with little to trade. Even her first-person accounts—the most powerful form of currency she has—are undermined by the fact that she has to tailor them to best fit the preconceptions and predilections of her listeners.

    The new miniseries is written and created by Sarah Polley, the Canadian director, actress, and activist who followed up a career as a child star (Road to AvonleaRamona) with the assured directorial debut Away From Her in 2006. In October, Polley contributed a first-person essay to The New York Times about her experiences as an actress, which included being propositioned by Harvey Weinstein. “On sets,” she wrote, “I saw women constantly pressured to exploit their sexuality and then chastised as sluts for doing so.” She recalls getting together with a group of performers to discuss an idea in which they turned their worst professional experiences into a comedy project. But when they detailed those experiences, the nature of them changed. “They were stories of assault,” Polley wrote. “When they were spoken out loud, it was impossible to reframe them any other way.”

    This understanding that stories can not only shape but also redefine reality is the crinoline core to Alias Grace. In 1843, at the age of 16, Grace was convicted of the murder of Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), her employer, and Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin), his housekeeper and mistress. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, the story starts in the middle of Grace’s imprisonment, after she’s been incarcerated for more than a decade in Kingston Penitentiary. During the day she’s transported to the governor’s mansion, where she works as a maid, and where the mistress of the house has grown so fond of Grace’s meek and dutiful ways that she’s working to prove her innocence. As part of that effort, an American psychologist, Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), is hired to interview Grace, and to establish the truth of her story.

    In the first scene Grace stares at her reflection in the mirror, considering all the things that have been written about her and trying to match her expression to the various personas that have been foisted on her: demon, innocent, temptress, idiot. “I wonder,” she thinks, “how can I be all these different things at once?” The tension of the next six episodes comes from determining which of them, if any, apply, since the authentic Grace, even in her personal narration to the viewer, remains elusive.

    The show, though, is constructed from pieces of Grace’s story—how she left Ireland as a child to travel to Canada, how her mother died on the filthy and disease-ridden boat, how her violent father tried to rape her before sending her out to work. Dr. Jordan listens and makes notes as Grace recounts her life. At the end of the first episode, while she sews in her prison cell, she thinks about his interest in the case, and wonders why everyone seeks to probe and expose her. “It’s a feeling of being torn open,” she thinks. “Like a peach. And not even torn open, but being too ripe and splitting of its own accord.” The relationship between storyteller and listener is strange, voyeuristic, and symbiotic.

    The adaptation rests on Gadon’s enigmatic and subtle performance as Grace. For the most part she’s restrained, muted, and bruised, but there are moments where Gadon gets to unexpectedly prove her range. Alias Grace is directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol), who’s long found rich territory in the intersection of internal and external selves. Viewers see right from the start that there’s a disconnect between what Grace thinks and what she tells Dr. Jordan. Her replies to him are convincing, but carefully arranged. And her defense rests on her assertion that she simply can’t remember the deaths of Montgomery and Kinnear, while we, the audience, repeatedly see flashes of the event: of bodies tumbling down staircases and droplets of blood.

    Alias Grace is essentially a true-crime story, albeit one based on a 174-year-old case. But through the combined efforts of Polley and Harron, and with Atwood’s text as its base, it’s true crime filtered through the female gaze. Grace might be a murderer, but she’s also a victim. She’s abused and assaulted at home, at work, and in prison; she learns not to visit the outhouse alone at night, and to keep her bedroom door locked. “Once you are found with a man in your room, you are the guilty one, no matter how they get in,” she explains to Dr. Jordan. Grace is the interpreter for this world, and her viewpoint, however unreliable, is the dominant one. But Harron makes choices that also distinguish the show from other crime dramas. There are no slow creeps of the camera along the outlines of a female corpse, no graphic images of sexual violence. The only things we learn are the things Grace feels comfortable telling.

    In all that, Alias Grace is discomfiting, compelling, deeply insightful television. It looks not to an alternate future, like The Handmaid’s Tale does, but to the past. And there, it finds sharp parallels with the current moment. “A girl of 15 or 16 is accounted a woman,” Grace explains to a teenage boy who’s courting her, in a moment that resonates uncomfortably with recent news. “A boy of the same age is still a boy.” She’s come to know all the various ways the world sees her. The thrill of this series is that she’s given the means to take control of the narrative.

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  • Nov 09 2017 The Economist

    “Alias Grace”, another triumphant Atwood adaptation

    The Netflix miniseries is a study of truth and memory

    THIS week, the Supreme Court paved the way for the execution of Vernon Madison, a 67-year-old from Alabama convicted of murdering a police officer three decades ago. Having suffered strokes, Mr Madison no longer remembers his crime, and is diagnosed with both dementia and amnesia. All nine justices agreed that discontinuity in a person’s coherence does not prevent the state from carrying out punishment.

    “Alias Grace”, a new Netflix miniseries, is interesting to watch in light of this case. It too considers the overlapping spheres of memory and accountability. Grace Marks (played by Sarah Gadon) is an Irish maid sentenced to life imprisonment; Dr Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) is an early practitioner of psychiatry tasked with investigating her case. With Grace claiming to have no recollection of the crimes, Dr Jordan spends his mornings probing her subconscious for evidence of periodic amnesia. In a neat visual metaphor, Grace recounts her testimony while piecing together quilts, sewing almost without looking down. As she contradicts herself again and again, Dr Jordan becomes increasingly enthralled by her, ultimately losing his professional detachment.

    Adapted from Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed novel, “Alias Grace” is itself based on the real-life murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in Upper Canada (now Southern Ontario) in 1843. Two servants of the Kinnear household were convicted of the crime. James McDermott, the stable-hand, was hanged while Grace received her controversial life sentence. Fifteen years later, no one can vouch for Grace’s sincerity and Dr Jordan—a fictional addition to the story—refuses to write the medical report which would invoke the temporary insanity plea and allow the granting of a pardon.

    It is suggested that trauma, and something more intangible and otherworldly, are responsible for her lapses in memory. Before the murders Grace’s friend Mary, a maid in service in another household, is seduced by the eldest son. She obtains a backstreet abortion and bleeds to death. Grace believes she hears Mary’s voice whisper in the room where her corpse is lying on the bed, and rushes to open the window for her soul to depart. Her mind returns to that whispered moment, her inability to save her friend and the image of the closed window repeatedly; Grace has not been the same since. It is a fresh take on a piece of stock gothic imagery.

    It is through flashbacks to these events, as well as to the murder and other scenes, that the texture of the narrative is gradually woven. Almost 30 years after her imprisonment, Grace is released and married at last. Idly happy in her own house, she is finishing the patchwork she has been sewing. Here Ms Atwood again undermines a clichéd narrative tool. Rather than a neat resolution, Grace’s inability—and, as a result, the viewer’s—to settle on a straightforward sequence of events haunts the narrative. “If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged,” she says, confessing that she thought of committing the murders, but leaving her participation a question mark.

    It is a powerful adaptation, with Sarah Polley’s screenplay preserving the ambiguity of Ms Atwood’s novel. As with many of her works, “Alias Grace” is an inward-looking narrative, and the series is nourished and sustained by Grace’s poised voiceovers (as in the Emmy-award-winning “The Handmaid’s Tale”, which depended on Offred’s interior commentary). Grace may be the unreliable narrator par excellence but Ms Gadon’s nuanced performance brims with precision even while embodying the mercurial nature of truth.

    Directed by Mary Harron (“American Psycho”), the cinematography draws out luminous scenes in the gloomy kitchens and cellars of Victorian manor houses. Replete with dark gothic undertones, it indulges in moments of pure horror (the murder itself, which recurs throughout the series, shows one victim thrown down the cellar stairs. The thud of a body hitting the hard floor is followed by the sound of a breaking neck). The visual language of the series chimes with its mood.

    Uncertainty and doubt are essential elements of any drama, but “Alias Grace” puts relativism at its heart. Grace, the “celebrated murderess”, has a disarming and unnerving approach to truth; by the series’ close, the question of her innocence or guilt has almost ceased to matter. It weighs up the law, which always pushes for clarity, against the ambiguities and unknowable recesses of the mind.

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  • Nov 08 2017 Rolling Stone

    ‘Alias Grace’: How a True-Crime Drama Became the Most Relevant Show on TV

    Why Netflix's stellar adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel about a 19th-century murderess could not have come at a better time

    For two decades, Sarah Polley has been desperately trying to adapt Margaret Atwood’s book about a young woman who was abused, mistreated and silenced in the mid-1800s. By the time the 38-year-old actor-turned-writer/director brought the author’s 1996 historical novel Alias Grace to the small screen – the six-hour miniseries began streaming on Netflix in early November – she had no idea she’d end up discussing the very same issues taking place in the 21st century. “I was imagining when I did press for [this], I would be introducing this as a conversation,” Polley says. “And now it’s the thing that I get asked about the most.” She’s referring to the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal and the deluge of similar accusations of sexual misconduct that have followed in its wake. “It’s an incredible shift to have witnessed. Suddenly, what happens to you, living in a society where you’re not allowed to have an authentic response to abuse, is a conversation that everybody’s willing to have.”

    Alias Grace is, on the surface, a true-crime drama. Atwood based it on the real life of a poor, disenfranchised, long-suffering Irish-Canadian immigrant and maid who was found guilty of murder in 1843. No one really knows for sure whether the 17-year-old Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) helped fellow servant James McDermott (Kerr Logan) shoot their employer, Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), and strangle his housekeeper/mistress, Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin). According to the novelist’s assiduous research, the story was basically the Making a Murderer of its day.

    But beyond the story’s titillating mystery, Polley notes, is an ode to the power of the subjective female narrative as well as an exploration of the ripple effects of trauma. “My main objective was to track a woman’s journey through a man’s world where she’s endlessly harassed, abused – and expected to remain silent,” says Polley. Grace’s story unfolds in flashback, after 15 years in prison, during interviews with the fictional proto-psychiatrist Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft). The series follows her treacherous sea voyage from Ireland to Canada, losing her mother along the way. [Minor spoilers ahead.] Grace soon leaves behind her younger siblings and sexually abusive father to work as a maid in a prominent household, where she develops a close bond with the charismatic, politically minded Mary Whitley (Rebecca Lilliard). Eventually, a tragedy involving an illegal abortion leaves Grace heartbroken and hardened. Every scene is somehow limned with the threat of violence, making it painfully obvious how little control girls of that era had over their fate.

    Polley first approached the Canadian author for the rights to the novel when she was only 17, and best known as the star of Road to Avonlea and The Sweet Hereafter. Her compatriot turned her down. In the intervening years, the actor established herself as a deft storyteller, directing films like Take This Waltz(2011) and the autobiographical doc Stories We Tell (2012), both of which she says were heavily influenced by Grace. She continued to track the rights – and was briefly attached to another production company’s never-attempted adaptation – before finally securing them for herself.

    “The truth was, I don’t think I was ready to make this before the moment I did,” says Polley, who wrote all six episodes. “As a 17-year-old girl, I would have really been writing it from a young Grace’s perspective. But I’ve had many years to obsess over it, and it oddly became a really big part of my psychoanalysis. I’ve used this book, this touchstone, to understand myself and the many people that women become when they’re forced to repress their response to horrible experiences.” (Polley recently wrote about her own appalling interaction with Weinstein for The New York Times.)

    To her legions of fans, Margaret Atwood has never stopped being relevant. But the celebrated 77-year-old author has tapped into our collective psyche with uncanny precision this year: Hulu’s Emmy-winning The Handmaid’s Tale, based on her 1985 dystopian classic, premiered three months after Trump’s inauguration – at which point a story about women stripped of their rights and reproductive freedom no longer felt particularly fictional.

    Knowing how much the story meant to Polley added a degree of intimidation to an already demanding role for star Sarah Gadon (Indignation). The very first shot opens with Grace looking in a mirror, her facial expression shifting ever so subtly from naïve to cunning. “The motif of a woman looking in a mirror is one that you see over and over again in film and TV, but that image is usually constructed by a male artist,” says Gadon. “Sarah said, ‘Grace is now going to sit with every claim that has ever been had over her identity, and she’s going to sit comfortably in them, which is going to deeply unsettle you.’ And that’s something that goes beyond the pages of Margaret’s book.”

    Director Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol) was similarly daunted. “It’s like directing three movies,” she says. “I loved the material, though I was kind of scared of it. You could say it’s a feminist reworking, but it’s not at all simplistic.” Polley says she handed over the directorial reigns because “the reader in me won out over the filmmaker. I was excited to see it come to fruition through the eyes of someone that I respected.”

    Harron and Gadon prepped for several months ahead of the autumn 2016 shoot; in addition to learning a Northern Irish accent, the latter spent a week in a pioneer village learning how to churn butter and scrub farmhouse floors. (“I’m freaking sewing a quilt while I’m trying to keep all this heady psychological shit straight,” she recalls, laughing.) Together, they worked to determine how best to contrast thirtysomething Grace with her younger self, and effectively communicate the various interpretations of her story. “We developed a shorthand: Innocent Grace, Bad Grace, Neutral Grace,” explains Harron. “The Grace who is telling the story has this serene detachment, which comes from suffering. It’s almost as if she’s in the afterlife and she’s looking at the world and the things that have happened at some remove.”

    (Gadon, on the advice of Atwood, won’t say whether she believes Grace is guilty or not. But she admits, “When women are oppressed, you want them to have agency … so as morbid as it might sound, I think there were more times when I wanted her to have done it.”)

    Each take contained a slightly different character shading so that Harron could assemble a nuanced version in the editing bay: One minute the piety of Grace’s words are as calming as a lullaby; the next she utters an opinion with enough sharpness to cause whiplash. “I wonder how much sublimated rage she must have carried with her, this child harassed on every corner,” wonders Dr. Jordan, speaking to the kindly reverend (director David Cronenberg) who wants him to exonerate Grace. That question is one viewers are intended to ask as well. “Obviously there’s a lot more of Innocent Grace than Bad Grace,” says Harron. “But if you come to the conclusion that she’s guilty you would at least understand why she would have done it.”

    This remarkable (and very Canadian) combination of talent resulted in a miniseries that not only demands to be quickly devoured, like so many successful true-crime offerings (“I consumed all of those series like a junkie,” admits Polley. “There’s all kinds of ethical implications that I’m not 100 percent comfortable with, but I have basically an endless appetite for these things.”), but also turns the act of simply listening to a woman tell her story into something far more meaningful. “Often, women’s voices are left out of their own stories,” says Polley. “I was more interested in the psychology of Grace than in the factual answer of what she did and how. All we have are theories, mostly from men, who had various agendas. What we don’t have is her voice.”

    That a centuries-old murder could raise issues of class, gender and power that still resonate today is a testament to Atwood’s writing. But its resonance has become so much more acute recently in the midst of a watershed moment wherein hundreds of women (and men) are coming forward daily to share stories of sexual harassment and assault. Suffice to say, the outpouring that’s followed those initial Weinstein allegations took everyone involved with Alias Grace by surprise. “You work on things for years and years, and sometimes you hit the zeitgeist and sometimes you don’t,” says Harron. “This happened with American Psycho. I made it, and then people felt it was relevant five or 10 years after it came out.” (The 2000 film was originally criticized for its prurient violence; it has since been touted as a scathing capitalist satire.) She adds: “I usually expect that to happen.”

    And Gadon is relieved that the miniseries can in some ways provide a counter-narrative to these upsetting revelations. “When women are in positions of power and authority, what is possible onscreen becomes so much more intimate,” she says. “In light of the current news cycle, which is so disturbing and disheartening, and has sometimes left me feeling hopeless, I think about what Mary and Sarah and Margaret have done, and I’m so proud of the show.”

    For Polley, of course, the enduring appeal of Margaret Atwood makes perfect sense, especially right now. “This is the moment where we have the appetite for someone as clear-seeing and ruthless as Margaret, because we’re scared,” she says. “People know they need to look brutally and honestly at the world.”

     

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  • Nov 06 2017 Village Voice

    Netflix’s Magnificent “Alias Grace”: Not Just of the Moment, But Urgently of All Time

    The magnificence of Mary Harron and Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel, Alias Grace, is multifaceted. Over six episodes crafted with the rich complexity of the novel, “celebrated murderess” Grace Marks (Sarah Gaddon) tells her own story, Scheherazade-style, to a doctor (Edward Holcroft) with the power to arrange for her pardon. It’s a superb entertainment, gripping and slippery, suspenseful right up until its final moments, that very gripping-ness itself urgently thematic: Just as the creators have to entice us to keep us watching, Grace has to keep the doctor fascinated, charmed, even. Harron, the director, cuts several times an episode to his eyes as Grace lays bare, with precise yet unfussy language, the hardships a female servant (and later a convicted killer) faced in mid-nineteenth-century Canada.

    The more that handymen and masters of the house paw at her, the more she explains that “there are many dangerous things that take place in a bed,” the more the doctor seems to lean in, enchanted. He’s liberal-minded enough to be upset at hearing about what women endure every day, but not enough that he’d ever have noticed this himself, or thought to do anything about it. And there’s no doubt that he’s turned on by her account, by the thought of what this lissome beauty has lived through, by his certainty that he would have been — and still could be — better to her.

    In short, he watches Grace the way many men will watch Alias Grace or Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, also based on an Atwood novel but not as fully realized a work of art as what Harron and Polley have wrought. He watches while knowing that, in his own life, he probably could have done more — and maybe he shouldn’t be too into this.

    Harron (I Shot Andy WarholAmerican PsychoThe Notorious Bettie Page), working from a script by Polley (the writer and director of Away From HerTake This Waltz, and Stories We Tell), offers a fuller evocation of what it might have been like actually to have lived in the past than what TV or movies usually bother with. Besides the carefully appointed larders and the vital attention paid to needlework and quilting, note how, in Alias Grace’s Toronto and countryside, the abundant flies bother nobody, that even a doctor neglects to wash his hands after plucking the gizzard from a chicken, and how a suffocating decorum prohibits people — especially women — from speaking the plain truth about the often brutal facts of life. “They took liberties, sir,” Grace says, with careful understatement, of the staff at the asylum.

    Note, too, how often, in this faithful adaptation of a novel from two decades back, reimagining murders that scandalized the provinces in 1843, those facts of life echo today — right now. A code of silence still protects predatory men; what seems timely, here, is in fact eternal, unless we stop it in our own lifetimes.

    That silence is complex. When the doctor presses her, in a later episode, about the specifics of those liberties taken at the asylum, Grace balks at the question. She has prided herself on telling her story with “vividness and mass of circumstantial detail,” but even a murderess fears too much for her reputation to admit to having lived through sexual assault.

    At least, that’s what Grace wants him to think. It’s one of the great pleasures of the series to attempt to tease out just what Grace is feeling at any moment. She admits herself, in narration, that she lies sometimes to the doctor, that she arranges the facts of her case to interest him. By not answering the question, she forces him to face his own impassioned interest in the matter — and also to apologize to her for his own indelicacy. Alias Grace is at its heart always about storytelling, role-playing, the secret ways that women tell unmentionable truths: Grace does this through her embroidery, communicating with a quilt what has happened in a bed, but also through her pointed omissions, her habit of getting him to consider those “things they don’t print in the papers.”

    For all its quiet fury, Harron and Polley’s Alias Grace is above all else a superior dramatic mystery, one whose surprises truly jolt and whose pieces, in the end, snap satisfyingly together. It’s mostly well acted, with the excellent Gaddon playing Grace in a variety of ages and perspectives: She’s thirtyish in the present-day scenes, telling the story, but in her mid-teens in the flashbacks, a somewhat naive girl hardened after years of abuse but still thrilled over fireflies and the chance to giggle with her more experienced friend (Rebecca Liddiard). Or that’s how she presents herself; occasionally, we see young Grace from the point of view of people testifying against her. Anna Paquin is arrestingly inconstant as a housemaid with more power than Grace, all smiles one moment and perverse cruelty the next; and Zachary Levi brightens an otherwise dark narrative as a traveling peddler who tries to sell young Grace on something too frightening for her even to envision — freedom.

    Polley’s script dips often into Atwood’s prose, so this Grace speaks with rare power and sharpness, her phrasing shaped by a lifetime of scripture. Harron always shows us things worth regarding, and is especially adept at making toil interesting. Just as 12 Years a Slave performed the public service of helping us imagine the day-to-day terror of plantation life, Alias Grace captures the grind of a house servant, churning butter, husking peas, scrubbing nightclothes, tending to the business of the privy. The violence comes in garish flashes, never romanticized or celebrated, more the troubled memory of the act than the fully staged act itself. The lingering image of these five hours of television is Gaddon’s face, so pale you can see capillaries beneath the eyelids, as her Grace tells the doctor about the ways that women must forever navigate around the men in their lives — the truths he should have known already.

    Alias Grace is streaming now on Netflix.

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