Many a hit has come from the pen of Man Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood. With the success of ‘The Handmaiden’s Tale’ other adaptations were inevitable and so follows Alias Grace. This is a fictionalised account of a real double murder in Canada West of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery, in 1843. Alias Grace takes in themes of gender power inequality, immigration, and medical practices of the time, but spends most of its time with the upstairs downstairs relationships between the naive Grace Marks and her various masters.
Grace Marks has been imprisoned since her conviction for a double murder. He co-conspirator, already hanged for the crime, put the blame solely at her feet. But she claims amnesia of the time in question and her behaviour has been exemplary since. Dr Jordan, a psychiatrist (something considered novel and new at the time), is instructed to examine her with a view to writing a report that may help secure her freedom. This in essence is the framing device the show uses to allow Grace (Sarah Gadon) to tell her story, from harrowing boat journey across the Atlantic up to (eventually) the murders themselves.
From the initially brutal editing (many a sentence is punctuated by housekeeper Nancy being thrown bodily down the cellar stairs) juxtaposing the gentle voice of Grace, it is clear that we are dealing with a case of the unreliable narrator. Each episode focuses mostly on what Grace is saying happened throughout her life, but interjections with reports of other people paint her in a different picture to the one she paints herself. And this is the strength of the show. It’s less ‘did she or didn’t she’ and more ‘why, and whose idea was it?’
As we slowly work up to the murders many social and political themes are explored. Mary, Grace’s only real friend, is a livewire who talks of revolution and rebellion whilst the two of them scrub the floors of their betters. James McDermott may or may not have been the angry servant worker who lashed out and was the catalyst for death. Grace, diagnosed with hysteria, spends time at an asylum which she skirts over except to say they ‘took liberties’ – something distressingly common at such places. Anyone who enjoys a Downton Abbey style period piece is going to get their fill with the historical setting being explored.
That said, for a six episode limited run series, Alias Grace suffers from pacing problems. It’s not until episode 4 that the truth or not of what we are seeing is really questioned. Minimalist scoring and long scenes place a lot of emphasis on Gadon’s ability to hold your interest but she is too one-note throughout. The core mystery of the show is clearly intended to be ‘is she telling the truth or is she an excellent liar’. But Gadon plays Grace so buttoned down that there is not a lot of the vital twinkle in the eye needed to sell the intrigue. Very little of her tale adds much to this narrative spine so if you are looking to get stuck in to some detective work you’ll be left wanting. Similarly, Dr. Jordan’s (Edward Holcroft) characterisation flits from blank slate professionalism to odd fantasy scenes of attraction to Grace, which never goes anywhere nor adds anything. The effect is that the telling of the story is interesting, but everything around it is just mud in the water.
My biggest single irritation was that Alias Grace teases an element of paranormal that never comes to pass. Again, this is likely an intentional by-product of the unreliable narrator syndrome. It is implied that Grace may be weaving in extra bits to her story so when we get hints that Grace may have the soul of a dead friend trapped inside her, the show leaves it deliberately vague. But it also never gives it enough screen time to really be of any interest. One mention in one episode and a few scraps of conversation does not justify a 10 minute hypnotic trance during the peak of the narrative. Instead, it seems tacked on and ineffective.
Ultimately Alias Grace frustrated me. I was hooked by the plot and counted down the time to the murders themselves. Anna Paquin’s ‘hot and cold’ Nancy makes for great viewing and the upstairs downstairs was well done. But, despite it being intentional, it never resolves itself. Questions are left hanging which don’t satisfy the voiceover heavy path taken to get there. Six episodes is enough to enjoy this as a quick bit of historical drama, but any ghost of thriller or mystery is left unresolved. You'd be better off watching The Haunting Of Hill House (review here) instead!
Words by Michael Record