SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “Alias Grace,” the six-part Netflix series based on Margaret Atwood’s book which premiered Nov. 3.
Grace Marks: cold-blooded double murderer, poor young woman experiencing a dissociative episode, or falsely accused innocent?
“Alias Grace,” Netflix’s limited series from writer/producer Sarah Polley and director Mary Harron based on Margaret Atwood’s novel, dives deep into the life of the convicted murderer, but whether or not she was truly guilty is far from the point of her story.
“It’s not a simplistic notion of good and bad and heroine and villain. You will puzzle over it because when you think about the guilt or innocence, you will also think about the world they came from and what makes people do things and what turns women against each other, which is one of the key themes,” Harron tells Variety. “Honestly I think everyone will create their own ‘Alias Grace’ in their minds, and that’s the great thing about ambiguity. You are filling in the blanks.”
Sarah Gadon, the woman who brought Grace to life on-screen, notes that Grace is more than complicated, she’s “almost an impossible character because there’s no concrete version of her.” Throughout the episodes, as she unravels her past for Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), a man determined to “figure out” this complicated woman, she plays up certain parts that she knows he will find particularly excited and keeps other elements about herself and her history a bit closer to the chest.
“When you’re exploring female subjectivity, you’re claiming back that space, and you’re having this full expression of this person that’s beyond this one idea of her,” Gadon says. “What’s most important to me is that Grace was a real person and she went through all of these hardships, but she survived them. She’s a survivor.”
However an unreliable narrator Grace may be to the doctor, she opens up a bit more for the audience. For Gadon, that started right away in the first episode during a seemingly simple moment of Grace in front of a mirror. “That motif of women looking in the mirror comes up over and over again in art, in film, in photography, in television, and usually it’s about female vanity or an emblem of beauty,” Gadon points out. “But Grace looks in the mirror and takes on all of these other projections that have come her way, and she sits comfortably in them, and it’s unsettling. And it’s in direct conversation with everything that’s come before, usually produced by men. And she’s saying, ‘I’m acknowledging this and I’m inviting you in and it’s going to be nothing like you’ve ever seen before.'”
Through scenes that saw Grace fleeing her drunk and lecherous father, to losing her best friend, to a botched abortion and even to being hypnotized, Grace was always recounting the experiences for an audience. The way she acted in any given moment was layered not only by her selective memory but also the way in which she chose to present that memory. It wasn’t until the very end that she was truly free to tell her story, completely unencumbered.
“I’ve always believed that identity is very much like the patchwork quilt that was such an important motif to the show,” Gadon says. “For me, the end of the show is so beautiful because Grace is saying ‘These are all the times of my life, the versions of myself, the things that happened to me, and now I’m in control and now I can say who I am.’ It’s just such a powerful moment. That’s what I like the most about that last image.”
Polley, Harron, and Gadon worked together during intense rehearsal periods that saw them “combing through the scripts” to build trust and their working relationships so that they could explore all of the complicated colors of Grace in any given take and know that it was never sensationalized or out of sync from scene to scene. “The level of detail and depth of characters that’s on the page, that’s what really makes it work,” Harron says.
Atwood’s novel, which fictionalized true events, was the source material for the series, but it also served as inspiration and a reminder of why it’s so important to rewrite ideas of women that came from a “very patriarchal perspective” and allow them to be fully and freely complex characters.
“There’s loads of bad scripts and loads of uninteresting female roles, so a story that is centered around complex, morally ambiguous, non-clearly delineated good gals and bad gals is very exciting because I think a lot of times male characters get to be the hero but also get to be morally ambiguous in a way female characters need to be punished if she does the wrong thing,” says Anna Paquin. “What’s so delicious about Grace is she’s kind of like [raises her middle fingers] to the whole notion because maybe she did it and maybe she didn’t. She got punished but also she got set free. It’s a beautiful sort of mindf— as far as the conventions of female protagonists.”
“Alias Grace” is streaming now on Netflix.