Grace’s eyelashes flutter. She is wide-eyed and guileless as a schoolgirl; then, with the tilt of a head, a narrowing of those blue, impenetrable eyes, she’s the celebrated murderess again, plotting, cunning, the Original Sin incarnate. So which is she, Grace wonders, idiot, innocent, or devious killer? She’s been called of them, but how can she be all those different things at once?
Meet Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), the celebrated murderess at the heart of 2017’s second buzzy Margaret Atwood adaptation, Netflix and CBC’s Alias Grace. Imprisoned for the murder of her former master and mistress, Grace is a former scullery maid turned national sensation. A celebrated murderess is no ordinary thing, and the spectacle of Grace Marks has remained one of the more titillating and mysterious chapters of Canadian lore since the mid-1800s. Her story fascinated and haunted Atwood, who wrote a book as complicated and labyrinthian as the historical figure at its center, published in 1996. Sarah Polley, a young actress at the time, tried to get the rights to adapt the novel when she was just 17. Two decades later, Polley’s passion project has finally come to fruition, with Mary Harron (American Psycho) in the director’s seat.
Polley’s Alias Grace is impressively faithful to the novel, despite the difficulties of adaptation. The story begins with Grace at the penitentiary, where some influencers are convinced of her innocence. They solicit the help of Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) to hear Grace’s story and cure her of her amnesia in the hopes of overturning her life sentence.
Besides the shifting narrators—Grace and Dr. Jordan—the novel has large sections that are entirely epistolary, mostly between Jordan and Grace’s various doctors and gatekeepers. The largest chunk of the novel is Grace telling her story to Jordan, which means that unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, there is often not the purity of a first-person narrator laying her cards bare (though there are some sections where Grace narrates alone), but a woman telling her story to an audience, and therefore playing a crafty game, with a damn good poker face. Whether she’s speaking to us or to Jordan, there is the sense of a magic trick being performed, keeping her true self hidden. She is slippery, diaphanous: just when she finally begins to take form, she dissipates like a ghost. Besides Grace and Jordan’s narration, the novel also has songs, newspaper articles, scraps of court confessions, excerpts from journalists and experts and etiquette books from the time period, poetry, and dreams, that dim river of consciousness that isn’t truth or fiction but something else: precisely the kind of something else that Alias Grace is most interested in.
Grace has an almost eidetic memory. In her interviews with Jordan, she can remember every stitch of clothing, every floor washed, every minute detail of her household chores. But when it comes to the actual event of the murder, the memory is snuffed, as brutally as a candle. The facts of the case are that James McDermott (Kerr Logan)—the other servant in the Kinnear household where he and Grace worked—killed Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin), the housekeeper, and Kinnear (Paul Gross). However, it was Grace’s handkerchief that was found around Nancy’s neck, and she was tried and sentenced as McDermott’s accomplice.
Sometimes we see when Grace is lying, like when Jordan asks her what a parsnip reminds her of, hoping to crack open memories of the cellar, where Nancy was found murdered. And indeed, Grace’s mind wanders to the cellar, drifting as lazily as a dust mote traveling through a house, but with a careful, innocent blink, she withholds. She needs to do her own observing first, to decide if Jordan is trustworthy.
Women like Grace Marks—dirt-poor immigrant women who spend their lives slaving for a class blessed with better fortunes—are not used to having their stories told. Once Grace begins to tell her story, she is surprised by how much she likes being listened to. In one of Grace’s most beautiful narrations, lifted almost word-for-word from the novel, she says, “When you write, I feel as if you were drawing on me, drawing on my skin with the feather-end of an old-fashioned goose pen…And underneath that is another feeling still. A feeling of being torn open. Not like a body of flesh; it is not as painful as such. And not even torn open, but too ripe and splitting of its own accord. And inside the peach, there’s a stone.”
Jordan is not always equipped for the more brutal chapters of her story. When she describes her adolescence, particularly the disease-ridden, filthy, near-fatal boat ride from Ireland to Canada, she calmly suggests that he open a window if he’s feeling nauseous, sensing his more delicate, upper-class sensibilities. The brutalities of class division simmer beneath Grace’s narration: murmurs of the failed rebellion against the gentry, undercurrents of hidden radicals, and the sense of a pressure cooker, reaching a boiling point. Because Grace does not speak only of the event she is famous for, but also the toil and suffering she endured as a house servant before the moment of climax. Alias Grace is not simply a murder mystery: it is also about female housework, female time, and men’s utter ignorance to it. When Jordan asks her about her chores, he is speaking as someone whose tea has always been brought to him, whose bed has been made, whose floors clean and food prepared, as if conjured from thin air, blissfully ignorant to the hours of female labor that produced it. Whether Jordan wants her to or not, Grace spends just as much time instructing him in the monotonous rhythms of laundry, bed-making, and floor-scrubbing, as in solving the murder mystery.
The show picks up once Grace finally arrives at the fated Kinnear household, a creaking country home steeped in Gothic intrigue, shadows lengthening in moonlight, muffled gasps, screams and hitching breaths à la Daphne du Maurier and the Brontës. Anna Paquin plays Nancy with a bit more bite than she has in the novel, where she’s volatile, not simply acidic: her moods swing, pendulously, her temper tethered to the wax and wane of Kinnear’s affections.
But it is Gadon’s sensational performance that the show hinges on. Her Grace is a cipher, a hall of funhouse mirrors, exposing more about the men around her than herself. They are fascinated by her suffering, desperate to hear the lurid tales of depravity normally inappropriate for discussion in civilized life. Grace remains at the center, weaving her quilts. She is a spider that does no luring at all. She weaves and waits, and the men approach willingly. It is they who want a closer look.
Female criminals have always been of fascination. Cesare Lombroso, known as the father of criminal anthropology, was obsessed with measuring the skulls and fingers of female criminals, desperate to find a physical marker of their abnormality. Without such visible signs, all of the principles which sustained the mythos of Victorian femininity might collapse in a cloud of dust. Unable to find such physical marks of distinction, Lombroso ultimately concluded that female criminals were simply not women at all: “She retains the sex of the female but acquires the gender attributes of masculinity. She is tyrannical, selfish; she wants only to satisfy her own passions.” Transgressions of femininity, in other words, don’t constitute a questioning of Victorian principles, but a revoking of womanhood altogether.
Men’s ignorance of women’s complexity—and their failure to listen—is not a problem that has disappeared. We have #MeToo now, but the fact of a man sitting in a sun-dappled parlor—not speaking, not answering, not arguing, just listening as a woman tells her story—is still a remarkable thing to show onscreen. That is Alias Grace’s central, and most compelling, conceit. Later, Jordan agonizes. He loses sleep over the story Grace has told him; he shows up at every new session a little more ragged. He does not ask for forgiveness, as some men do. He suffers. Because he has confronted what most men never will: the body under the hoop skirt is not always, or often, or perhaps ever, the tender peach they were promised. It is the hard bruised pit, holding a knife.