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‘Alias Grace,’ Set in the Past, Debuts on Netflix with Topics of Great Significance in the Present
November 3, 2017  | By David Hinckley

If you’re looking for a snappy and tidy resolution to a notorious murder case, don’t count on Netflix’s Alias Grace.

If you’re looking for a story where a notorious murder serves as the doorway for an exploration into the lot of women and immigrants in the early 19th century, overlaid with elements of spiritualism, Alias Grace should be your next binge.

Okay, it won’t be a long binge. Launching Friday on the streaming service, Alias Grace runs just six episodes.

It is also less ethereal and abstract than that general description makes it sound – largely due to a marvelous performance by Sarah Gadon (top) as Grace Marks, a young Irish girl convicted of two 1843 murders.

Her co-defendant, James McDermott, was hung and when we meet Grace in 1859, she’s in a kind of work-release program from prison while debate continues over her culpability.

Was she the perp or was she a somewhat unwitting accomplice to McDermott? Or were there other forces at work, perhaps involving the spirit of Grace’s deceased friend Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard, left, with Gadon)?

A group of clergy and others are campaigning to have her pardoned, after 15 years as an exemplary inmate.

While Grace claims not to remember details, we hear her talk extensively about the rest of her life to Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft). He’s an “alienist,” a sort of psychologist who believes it’s possible for a person to be inhabited by alien spirits.  

Grace explains up front that the notoriety of the case has already caused most people to have judged her, whether as innocent victim or vicious killer.

While attempts to jog her memory in the past have driven her to fits of hysteria, she speaks to Jordan in an even, matter-of-fact, at times almost detached tone.

In a narrative that becomes progressively more chilling, she recalls how she was born to an impoverished Irish family that sailed to Canada in hopes of a better life. Her mother died on the voyage, and her abusive alcoholic father kicked her out of the house before she was a teenager.

She got work as a housemaid, a common occupation for Irish immigrants, and wasn’t treated much better. She did become friends with Whitney, a saga with a sad ending, and she knew fellow servant McDermott, which led to her connection with him when the home’s owner Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and housemaid Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin, left) were murdered.

Grace’s story, unlike similar mysteries in the past – USA’s recent The Sinner comes to mind – does not end with recovered memories or neat resolution. It takes directions in which few viewers will expect the opening setup to lead.

What it does have in common with other stories is that we get to like Grace, though she isn’t some fragile victim we want to hug, and she doesn’t make herself lovable in a traditional sense.

We admire, instead, her resolve, her buoyancy, her ability to survive in a world where neither young girls nor Irish immigrants got anything resembling a break.

She survived in that world, and she has come to understand that world. If this doesn’t necessarily put her on a road to freedom and joy, it provides an engaging dramatic insight into the way many of our ancestors had to live less than 200 years ago – and too many people in too many places still live today.

Alias Grace began as a novel by Margaret Atwood and was adapted into a miniseries by Sarah Polley. Atwood worked from stories of the real-life Grace Marks, adding scenes and characters to make the telling more coherent.

Jordan provides the reason we would hear Grace talking, or thinking out loud. Mary Whitney also existed only in Atwood’s book.

There will be a temptation, not misguided, to compare Alias Grace with A Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s acclaimed adaptation of another Atwood story.

Both revolve around women who have found quiet ways to resist oppression, an issue that’s still a work in progress in real life these days.

Alias Grace, while it’s not action-packed and it’s often not cheerful, offers something substantial to think about.

Sarah Gadon offers something substantial to watch.

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