Margaret Atwood has emerged as unlikely literary patron saint of streaming television. Hulu’s devastating, slow-burn adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale became the first streaming show to win the prestigious best drama Emmy. Now Netflix has secured global distribution rights for the CBC retelling of Atwood 1996 novel inspired by a real life double murder in 19th century Canada.
With a script by actress-turned-screenwriter Sarah Polley, and Mary Harron (American Psycho) directing, Alias Grace is in the glumly sumptuous tradition of Handmaid’s Tale, with the grinding austereness of 1800s Ontario brought vividly to life.
Alas, there is a stumbling point for viewers in Ireland with Sarah Gadon’s toe-curling tilt at a Irish accent plumbing Tom Cruise in Far And Away levels of cringe.
When we first meet Grace Marks she is behind bars at Ontario’s Kingston Penitentiary, having pleaded guilty to the double murder of the master and mistress of the grand house where she was employed as a servant.
Yet, despite her confession, the authorities struggle to believe a woman could commit so “masculine” a crime – and so mental health expert Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) is invited to assess her for insanity. Incrementally across its six episodes – each clocking in at a spare 40 minutes or so – Grace delves into the lead up to and aftermath of the killings. There are hints she may have had an accomplice. All the way through you are kept guessing, with the tension frequently at nail-chomping levels.
Alias Grace is a sustained feat of bravura film-making, with the outwardly straightforward murder mystery serving as a springboard for an exploration of society’s attitudes towards woman and immigrants – its ambivalent conclusions arguably as relevant now as in 1859. But then there’s that Lucky Charms accent – a misstep in a production that has otherwise invested huge effort in getting the details right.
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