Fans of The Handmaid's Tale may just have a new obsession.
Netflix’s Alias Grace (streaming Friday, ★★★½ out of four) is the latest adaptation of a 1996 novel by the incisive Margaret Atwood: a shorter and more subtle story than Handmaid's, but still an incredibly satisfying one.
Created by Sarah Polley (Away From Her), Alias turns its lens on the past instead of a dystopian future, focusing on Grace (Sarah Gadon), a 19th-century Irish immigrant in Canada who was convicted of murdering two people. The series retains Atwood’s interest in exploring the treatment of women, but it's also a mystery steeped in mysticism and obscurity, a sumptuous and arresting costume drama with blood seeping through the surface.
Both the book and the series are fictionalized takes on the real Grace Marks, who served 30 years in prison for the double murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, before she was pardoned, relocated, and then disappeared.
This Grace is an enigma, incarcerated for 15 years when a charitable organization takes an interest in procuring her pardon. The group employs Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft, Kingsman: The Golden Circle) to examine her and help prove her innocence. The series is framed by their interviews, in which Jordan presses Grace about her past, seen in flashbacks, and slowly leads up to the murders.
The series is superbly acted throughout, but no one outshines the stunning Gadon. Her Grace remains coy in the present and is emotionally laid bare in the past. The actress deftly seesaws between the young, naïve girl shown in flashbacks to the older, wizened prisoner accustomed to abuse and deception.
Alias also features strong supporting performances from Holcroft, who has a meatier role than his villainous rich kid in the Kingsman franchise; Zachary Levi (Chuck), as a sleazy peddler; Anna Paquin as the murder victim Nancy; and Rebecca Liddiard as Grace's ebullient friend Mary Whitney.
Atwood's commentary has a softer touch than Handmaid's, and the two series reflect that. Alias' focus remains the plight of women without rights, but its seen through the lens of a woman discovering she has power, not one who remembers a time when she did. It is not just that the women of the story are oppressed, it is that they (and especially their sexuality) are feared and reviled. Questions of who is good, who is evil and whether or not it matters are constant themes.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Grace is how it smartly melds its costume drama aesthetics with its seedier underpinnings. It plays with viewers' expectations about PBS Masterpiece-style television. Mary Herron (American Psycho), who directed all six episodes, frequently cuts to bloody scenes of the murder as Grace demurely talks about her past and sews quilts, its horror accompanied by a kicky, period score. The series has aspects of an Upstairs, Downstairs drama, but being a member of the upper class or its servants can mean the difference between life and death.
Is Grace guilty or innocent? Whatever the answer is, after watching an episode or two, you'll likely be hooked.