Alias Grace, released late last year on Netflix, is the story of a woman’s plight at the hands of men. It’s a story that would be familiar to a lot of women but not so many men. I found it a little remarkable that so many male reviewers found it to be quite special, though it ends awkwardly.
Alias Grace is told from the point of view of a famous woman convicted of a double murder in Canada in 1843. Grace Marks is said to be Canada’s Lizzie Borden, a woman accused in a controversial case of which many thought she was innocent. Indeed, she is ultimately pardoned and released after spending almost 30 years in prison.
The story is told as Grace describes her life to a visiting psychologist who is trying to determine whether Grace was insane at the time of the murders.
Her life includes many years of suffering, including time in an asylum. An Irish immigrant, she is abused by her father, then released to a hostile world where she begins what she expects to be a life of domestic servitude. But her life goes awry.
At her first assignment, she makes a friend: another chambermaid with broader experience of the world than she has. But this friend, Mary Whitney gets herself into trouble with the son of the household, who casts her off when he learns she is pregnant. Grace is thunderstruck when Mary dies after an abortion.
Mary Harron and Sarah Polley’s readaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel is generally good, as is the acting throughout. Sarah Gadon, in the lead, deserves a prize for her understated narrative. The first three episodes draw us in. But eventually the story gets murky as we hear and see more about Grace’s second assignment, where the murders take place.
As Grace talks on about the farm’s owner and housekeeper, who are both slaughtered, we begin to wonder about her sanity. It’s unclear where she loves or hates these two people, although she definitely feels resentment for the woman. She cannot remember the actual events of the murders, and she begins having visions and dreams, both of Mary Whitney and of the various men in her life. Another hand on the farm is convicted along with her, but we come to realize Grace is definitely an unreliable narrator.
In the final, sixth episode she is hypnotized by a man she once knew as a peddler, so we’re not sure if it’s a put-on or whether she sinks to a level where she appears to be possessed by a spirit. The psychologist who is witnessing this is very troubled by it. It’s never clear if Grace is attracted to him. But he has a somewhat gratuitous sex scene with his landlady, clearly desiring Grace instead.
As mentioned, Grace is ultimately released and marries a boy who had a crush on her while she worked on the farm where the murders took place. He is now grown up with a beard and a guilt complex, since he testified against Grace at her trial. She writes a final letter to the psychologist detailing her life, disappointed that he disappeared before writing a final report on her.
It’s disturbing and we are somewhat confused about what message we are to take from all this, primarily whether or not Grace is guilty. It simply isn’t clear. And neither is the larger message. This was based on a true event, and it has a disjointed ending like many real life incidents. But I would have preferred a few more threads on the quilts Grace is always making to be tied together, so we could see the overall picture a bit more clearly.