This Canadian-Netflix co-production crept onto Netflix this past weekend and apropos to its story, will probably be overlooked amongst the hub-bub of the more popular Netflix series. Alias Grace is based off the Margret Atwood novel of same name and written by Sarah Polley (probably best known for her role in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead) and the entire series is directed by American Psycho director, Mary Harron.
Synopsis: “Based on the true story of Grace Marks, a housemaid and immigrant from Ireland who was imprisoned in 1843, perhaps wrongly, for the murder of her employer Thomas Kinnear. Grace claims to have no memory of the murder yet the facts are irrefutable. A decade after, Dr. Simon Jordan tries to help Grace recall her past.”
The first episode introduces us to the initially taciturn Grace who is introduced to an American psychologist (Dr. Jordan) at the behest of a committee who wants to see her freed. Her apparent amnesia is of interest to Simon and he proceeds with a series of interviews with Grace in hopes of uncovering these buried memories. Straightaway Harron infuses an erratic, dreamlike menace into the first episode in the quick cuts of disturbing imagery we see the first time Grace attempts to recall the murders. For a show with that distinctly Canadian production value (like Netflix’s Anne with an E – though Alias Grace is the tonal and emotional antithesis to that show), Harron takes the viewer sharply from the “upstanding” (to use the term loosely) 1840’s aristocracy into the very dregs of poverty. The disquieting contrast (and parallels) examines both the literal and implied violence thrust upon women during that time.
It is not an easy to show to watch – nor should it be – as it tackles various subject matter still very much germane to our seemingly more civilized Western society: abortion, domestic abuse, the exploitation of immigrants and working poor – these subjects don’t feel nearly as remote as they should for a show set nearly two centuries ago. Harron doesn’t let the viewer turn away from the more starkly graphic representations of Grace’s experiences. These experiences are framed around the mystery of a grisly murder (the sensationalizing of which is another dimension to Alias Grace that feels eerily prescient to modern times) and the soul-crushingly bleak history of a Grace Marks. That bleakness is brightened somewhat by the addition of her bosom chum, Mary Whitney. With a seemingly indomitable spirit she is an unending font of hopefulness for the downtrodden and naïve Grace. Even Mary’s fate stumbles down a primrose path.
Along with Harron’s anxiety-inducing direction, Sarah Gadon’s (Grace Marks) disquieting performance as Grace pushes the viewer even further into uncomfortable territory. There’s a certain detachment that Gadon brings to her cadence and delivery when re-telling her story that makes the events seem even more disturbing than if it were infused with the cliché melodramatics common to these kinds of stories. Gadon’s beguiling charisma draws both the viewer and Dr. Jordan in, sticking to the back of your brain like a post-hypnotic suggestion you just can’t shake.
At the halfway point in Alias Grace, we’re just about to see her begin work at the Kinnear house where the murders took place. The first three episodes did a damn good job of setting up Grace’s character and history to the point that it still leaves the nature of her guilt or innocence ambiguous. Harron, Atwood and Polley have taken the murder-mystery genre and imbued it with a weighty sense of flat-out creepiness. There’s a perceived malevolence beneath Grace’s stoic exterior that has only been exacerbated by the macabre unfolding of her life to this point. Undeniably there’s a foreboding allure to Alias Grace that will have you switching between abject disgust and morbid curiosity.
To be honest, it is the kind of show where you’re not entirely sure you want to keep watching it – either because of the content or the style of delivery. After the first episode you think you know exactly what this show is about and assume you won’t need to keep watching. Then some weird itch flares up in the back of your mind and you find the compulsion (dissimilar to the modern “gotta binge it to find out what happens” mentality) to watch another episode creeping up on you. The best parallel that comes to mind is if you’re driving down the road and you pass by a happening that could be something sinister. Part of you wants to just ignore it and keep driving, but another part of you compels you to go back and see – elsewise you won’t be able to sleep at night.
Alias Grace is currently streaming on Netflix – check it out and let us know what you thought on Twitter @Official_FAN