TIFF Review: Alias Grace

Alias Grace
(Canada/USA, 90 min.)
Dir. Mary Harron, Writ. Sarah Polley
Starring: Sarah Gadon, Edward Holcroft, Rebecca Liddiard, David Cronenberg, Anna Paquin
Courtesy of TIFF
Praise be! After taking TVs and streaming sites by storm with the incredibly timely The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year, the oeuvre of Margaret Atwood gets another page to screen adaptation with her finest novel, Alias Grace. This adaptation from creator Sarah Polley (Stories We Tell) and director Mary Harron (The Notorious Bettie Page) does ample justice to its source material based on the first two episodes screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. Alias Grace captures the scope, mood, and dryly playful account of the subjugation of women as told through the harrowing story of alleged murderess Grace Marks, which, sadly, resonates strongly no matter the setting Atwood uses or the time in which her work appears. The CBC/Netflix mini-series promises to satisfy the appetites of Handmaid’s fans while they await another season, and it’s both similar to and different from the Hulu series to stand in its own right and further more curiosity for all things Atwood. This miniseries is some dark and dangerous CanCon.

Alias Grace captivates in large part thanks to Sarah Gadon’s exceptional performance in the title role. After building a profile in great supporting roles in the films of David Cronenberg, like Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars, or indies like Enemy and Indignation, Gadon gets the first true lead role of her career and proves what people having been speculating since she broke through about five years ago: she’s destined for stardom. Her mastery of Grace’s Irish brogue reminds us of the character’s struggles as she spins her tale with the hunger and hardness of lost youth. DP Brendan Steacy (Coconut Hero) manages to capture a twinkle of natural light in Gadon’s eye that makes Grace captivate with both her virtue and her potential madness. Gadon’s Grace marks is an enigma, a petite image of grace and innocence who isn’t afraid to be a calculating tease or flirt if her freedom is on the line.

The first episodes mirror the structure of the Atwood novel in which Grace tells her story in retrospect to Dr. Simon Jordan (Wolf Hall’s Edward Holcroft), a psychiatrist who has been commissioned to evaluate Grace’s mental state and determine if she merits a pardon. The exchanges begin in the chilling setting of Kingston Penitentiary where Harron stages the interviews like the quid pro quo dealings of Silence of the Lambs. Gadon’s Grace has the build of Clarice Starling and the teeth of Hannibal Lecter as she slyly gains the upper hand of Simon’s interviews and spins him around her finger. She gradually works her way towards the grisly murder of her former employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and fellow housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin) in a Lizzie Borden-like bloodbath. While violent images of the deed punctuate the narrative with flashbacks, viewers will have to wait until the final episode for the full-on butchery display. Grace, as good a storyteller as Atwood, Polley, and Harron, knows that meaty drama is all about prolonging the payoff.

Episode one focuses mainly on the story of Grace’s journey from Ireland to Canada. Sickly scenes in cramped vessels and the traumatic death of her mother illustrate the hardship of Canadian immigrant experiences, while the muddy entrance to Canada and abject poverty that Grace encounters show that life in the New World wasn’t easy for new arrivals. Episode two offers a tale of female friendship as Grace recalls her tenure as a housekeeper in the home of an alderman named Parkinson, whom we barely glimpse, and his crotchety wife, the latter played with good relish by Martha Burns.

In the Parkinson home, Grace befriends her roommate Mary Whitney, who teaches her a great deal about life and love. Newcomer Rebecca Liddiard plays Mary Whitney and brings the same kind of scene-stealing spark that gained Gadon notice a few years ago. There’s an uncanny resemblance to Rachel Weisz in Liddiard’s screen presence and comportment, and her lively performance is a highlight of the series so far. Other performances, like the novelty of David Cronenberg’s appearance as one of Dr. Jordan’s colleagues and the haunting madness Paquin provides in the fleeting glimpses of Nancy, hint at juicy bits to come.

Harron meticulously recreates the period and handles the dexterity of the intricate narrative to juggle the many tonal and temporal shifts. Polley’s script is perfectly Atwoodian in its cadence, tone, and droll observations of everyday sexism, like Grace’s semantic debate of the hidden pleasure in being a “murderess” rather than a mere murderer. Unlike the dystopia of the not-so-distant future in The Handmaid’s Tale, Alice Grace takes place in ye olde Kingston, roughly around 1860, and thus spins on its head the legacy of stuffy old CBC heritage productions that often come to mind when one imagines Canadian television. Alias Grace is even bigger and better than the public broadcaster’s wildly successful miniseries The Book of Negroes and the only complaint that one could have after this premiere is that the CBC committed to six hours, rather than twelve. Now when can we get The Year of the Flood?

Alias Grace screens at TIFF on Thursday, Sept. 14 at the Winter Garden.
It premieres on CBC Sept. 25

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TIFF runs Sept. 7-17. Visit TIFF.net for more info on this year’s festival.