Alias Grace brings Kingston to the small screen

Atwood adaptation confronts viewers with suffering 

Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks in Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Alias Grace.
Credit: 
Screenshot from Netflix.

When Sarah Polley was 17, she asked Margaret Atwood for the rights to turn her historical fiction novel Alias Grace into a TV show—Atwood said no. 

Twenty-on years later, Polley saw her teenage dream come true.  The resulting show, which is set and filmed in Kingston, is a vital analysis of women in television.

Alias Grace tells the story of Grace Marks—played by Sarah Gadon—a  young and poor Irish immigrant who is convicted as a co-conspirator in the murder of her former employer, the wealthy Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. The question of Grace’s guilt is the heart of the show.

Grace narrates her story to psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan, who is visiting Kingston at the request of a committee working to exonerate Grace for her crime. 

The series is a filmmaking masterpiece, with Polley’s writing and Harron’s directing coming together to bring out the grittiest elements of Atwood’s story.  

It’s on display in the first episode, as Grace Marks tells Dr. Jordan of her voyage from Northern Ireland to Toronto. 

As Grace and her family travel across the ocean, the unthought-of realities of sailing are brought to life. The third class passengers are crammed into small, wooden bunks and share a bucket to defecate and vomit in—which is often, thanks to seasickness and excessive drinking. 

The violent waves of the ocean soak them as they try to sleep below deck in the stench of their own filth and the ship’s mildew. The fact that Grace’s mother’s death is a break from the gruesome depiction of the voyage is illustrative of Polley and Harron’s ability to elicit physical reactions from viewers. 

The magic of Alias Grace lies in its turning of the spotlight onto the audience. Grace Marks’ story asks several questions of its viewers, and is content to leave them unanswered. 

The most pressing is whether we trust what women say. Grace’s reliability as a narrator is consistently challenged as viewers are shown images that challenge the narrative Grace is telling. At the end of the series, a voice-over tells Dr. Jordan that Grace had been changing the story to keep him intrigued. 

Throughout her retelling of her life, Grace shares the suffering she’s experienced, whether it’s a sexually abusive father or sexual harassment at the hands of her employers.

Grace’s suffering is reflective of the kind seen in movements like #MeToo. As a viewer, it was hard to not holdout a small hope that Grace actually was guilty. Women across the world experience sexual abuse, and viewers empathize with Grace taking action against her attackers. 

The question of innocence and motive is thrown back in the audience’s face, as the show challenges the societal fascination with the suffering of women. 

This is reflected in the doctor’s response to her case. He is intrigued by the accusations, her beauty, and—significantly—her suffering. 

At the end of the show, Grace writes to Dr. Jordan, criticizing his preoccupation with the trials she faced. 

Addressing Dr. Jordan’s eager response to these harrowing moments, Grace says, “your cheeks would flush, and if you had ears like a dog, they would have been pricked forwards with your eyes shining and your tongue hanging out.”

It’s what makes her important to audiences. As the episode wraps up, viewers have to come to terms that they too were intrigued with the sufferings of Grace Marks and the deaths of the women in her life. 

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