Review: "Alias Grace" is powerful adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel

WHAT: "Alias Grace," now streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT’S ABOUT: This Sarah Polley (“The Sweet Hereafter”) adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel based on a true story is about Irish immigrant and housekeeper Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) who was imprisoned in 1840s Canada for the murder of Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin) and her lover, Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross). A committee of the local Methodist church, however, believes she is innocent and hires an American psychologist, or “alienist,” Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), to analyze her and discover the true story of her role in the murders.

MY SAY: Margaret Atwood is certainly having her TV moment, and that moment couldn’t be coming at a better time. With Harvey Weinstein accused of sexual harassment — or assault — by some 80 women, a Hollywood culture he had a role in defining has been forced into a reckoning. But she attempted to force that reckoning 32 years ago when “The Handmaid’s Tale” was published: The patriarchy through history, and not just Hollywood history, has entrapped women, reduced them, defined them and ultimately imprisoned them. Stripped of their identity or after having one imposed on them, they have been forced to reconstruct an identity of their own, by sorting through false memories, suppressed memories and imposed memories until they arrive at a true self. It’s an act of creation or re-creation, independent of their captors. Defiance is a requisite. Dissembling, or camouflage, is a necessity.

When Dr. Jordan presents Grace with an apple upon first meeting her, she immediately understands the gesture: “The apple is the tree of knowledge is what you mean,” she says to herself. “Good and evil. A child can guess it. I think he wishes to say to himself, I stuck in my thumb and pulled out a plum. But I will not be anybody’s plum.”

That Grace is an unreliable narrator is self-evident to everyone except the good doctor, who tries to piece together a gestalt of her that he wants to impose or has been asked to impose. But Grace has other ideas. They are complex, sinuous, rooted in her past, perhaps in the past of others. She remembers everything or remembers nothing. But she will not be anybody’s plum. Grace will create her own gestalt. That’s a given. Until such time that the pieces are all finally assembled into a whole, she will be an enigma — to herself and to others.

It does take six full hours to get there, but the journey — her journey — can be an immersive one. Gadon’s performance is remarkable and the direction of Mary Harron (“I Shot Andy Warhol”) improves it further still: In tight focus, her eyes betray nothing, or rather betray no one. They never look inward. They’re watchful — as if they are watching us for a reaction, as much as they are watching Dr. Jordan. Meanwhile, we’re watching someone we don’t really know at all. A “murderess?” She likes the sound of that label, like the rustle of taffeta over the floor. Or an innocent wronged?

Neither Atwood nor Polley nor Grace herself have any intention of giving us an easy answer. They are in complete control here. The patriarchy will just have to deal with it.

 

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