Alias Grace has been shown as a film (first 2 episodes debuted at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival), TV series (as 6 episodes on the CBC in Canada), and as a mini-series (Netflix outside Canada).
Since even Barry Lyndon fans won't sit through 270 minutes of content in a dark theatre, Alias Grace may not qualify as a pure film experience. However, given the work that has gone into this project, Alias Grace is more than worthy of a film review.
Even if you have not dived into numerous interviews and stories about the makeup of Alias Grace, you'll recognize that immigration and feminism are the dominant themes in the story. The period setting makes finding moments of feminism difficult, but Sarah Polley's adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel brings sunshine to those moments.
The friendship between Grace Marks and Mary Whitney feels familiar to the bosom friendship in a well-known Canadian novel Anne of Green Gables with Anne Cuthbert and Diana Barry. Unlike the heroine of the story in Prince Edward Island, Grace Marks is the more shy of the two.
So how could this person who seems shy and timid be the murderer of 2 people? That is the story that Grace tells to Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft).
Grace's story starts on the trip from Ireland to Toronto. For those who has fantastical imagery of the voyage to the new world, Polley's adaptation destroys any such visions. Life doesn't get any easier for Grace after the family arrives in Toronto. Indentured servant is the unmentioned term. Grace earns $2/month at her first house. The new employer graciously offers a raise to $3/month.
There are points of fantasy between Grace and Dr. Jordan, though we aren't sure as to whose fantasy is involved. But these points also tie into the idea of memory loss in that Grace has no memory of the murders.
The other theme in the story revolves around the Rebellion of 1837. While the story takes place a few years after the failed rebellion, the topic of uprising lingers in the air, especially from Mary Whitney. Canadians may or may not this part of their history but certainly most non-Canadians, including your humble narrator/blogger, had no idea of this element of Canadian history.
Sarah Gadon keeps up the Irish accent and has a lot of her shoulders in this adaptation. Gadon has come a long way from playing Zoe Kessler, the daughter of Major Michael Kessler on The Border on the CBC. Gadon has to play a wide range of ages for her character. The Grace Marks character is supposed to be 16 at the time of the murders yet be in her early 30s as the story is being told.
Rebecca Liddiard does a splendid job as the upbeat and hopeful Mary Whitney. Liddiard is now making waves as the 3rd lead in Frankie Drake Mysteries, finishing up the Alias Grace timeslot in the CBC fall lineup.
The biggest names in the adaptation belong to the characters who are murdered: Paul Gross as Thomas Kinnear and Anna Paquin as Nancy Montgomery. They are surprisingly human, flawed characters for their status in the world. David Cronenberg is ideally cast as Reverend Verrenger, who leads the group trying to free Grace by bringing in Dr. Jordan.
Since the story is told in flashback, the early episodes end by stopping the session for the day. in the first 2 episodes, the same dark-haired woman interrupts the proceedings to make sure the doctor doesn't need anything. Small details such as this bring a literary device to give the audience a break before concluding the episode.
Period pieces are not my favourite genre by any stretch, but I did honestly find the story intriguing to find the conclusion.
Sarah Polley has said in interviews that she has wanted to adapt this novel for the last 20 years. The novel itself came out in 1996. And yet, you do watch this story through the prism of #MeToo. For some, this may ruin the adaptation but for most, this perspective should enhance the storytelling of a long ago time that sometimes, doesn't feel that long ago.
Alias Grace is also significant because of Sarah Polley. She wrote and directed 3 amazing films: Stories We Tell; Take This Waltz; and Away from Her. For the last few years, Alias Grace has been the project she has been working on in lieu of traditional films. If you enjoy the storytelling powers of Polley, see Alias Grace. We do hope Polley returns to the true big screen in the near future, but this is what we have in the interim time.
Alias Grace is now available outside Canada on Netflix and Canadians can access episodes through the CBC Web site.
photo credit: CBC