Her story about an Irish maid in Canada, convicted of murder in 1843, tackles current issues like sexual politics
Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace is yet another must-see Netflix show
What a banner year it’s been for Canadian author Margaret Atwood, for decades a national treasure in her homeland, and more recently the inspiration for two of the finest television series on the planet.
First up was The Handmaid’s Tale, adapted from her 1986 novel of a dystopian future where the few remaining fertile women have been reduced to breeding chattels for a fundamentalist state. It not only garnered rave reviews but went on to win eight Primetime Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series.
Next up is Alias Grace – a crackerjack miniseries coming to Netflix this Friday – based on Atwood’s 1996 novel of historical fiction about Grace Marks, an Irish maid who was convicted and imprisoned at the age of 16 for the murder in 1843 of her wealthy employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, in what was then Upper Canada, now the province of Ontario.
But was this mild-mannered woman – who maddeningly comes across as both manipulative and the innocent victim of circumstance – really behind a sensational double murder?
It’s a fascinating mystery that has persisted in the nation’s folklore since the Victorian era. Even after her controversial conviction, the judicial system ultimately couldn’t make up its mind and ultimately pardoned her after 30 years in jail.
Grace is portrayed here by the luminous Sarah Gadon, the Canadian actress who first gained notice when director David Cronenberg cast her as Emma Jung, opposite Michael Fassbender as the famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung, in A Dangerous Method (2011). She also won hearts as James Franco’s love interest in 11.22.63, the miniseries spun from Stephen King’s time-travel thriller about a bid to prevent the assassination of JFK.
Of Grace’s turbulent life, “we want to do that person justice and their memory justice and what happened to them”, says Gadon.
“It’s been really heavy, heavier than I think I anticipated. I think that the whole project is a big exploration on female identity, which is why I was so drawn to it. To be able to go to work every day and say words that Margaret Atwood wrote – that’s the experience of a lifetime.”
As well, the miniseries nicely ticks off a few boxes of what today’s viewers are most interested in: true crime, women’s rights and the immigrant experience.
Much of the filming took place in the actual prison where the young Irish immigrant was incarcerated almost two centuries ago.
“It feels so nice to be finishing [the shoot] here in Kingston Penitentiary, telling Grace Marks’ story,” the 30-year-old says on location. “It’s very meaningful to know she was here at one time as well. It’s all kind of setting in, the reality of it. The difficulty. The despair. All of that.”
Giving viewers the vicarious pleasure of weighing the evidence for and against Grace’s innocence is Dr Simon Jordan, an American doctor – a psychologist in today’s terms – who has been brought to the prison to examine her mind and prepare a report on whether she’s worthy of a pardon.
Rising British actor Edward Holcroft, 30, who plays the inquisitive Dr Jordan with a gravitas beyond his years, is also known for this year’s movie Kingsman: The Golden Circle and Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) as well as Vampire Academy (2014).
“He’s trying to figure out whether or not she really did it –and you’re trying to figure out whether she really did it or not, when you watch the show,” says Gadon.
Sarah Polley, a celebrated Canadian actress and former child star of Road to Avonlea, and today the executive producer of the six-hour miniseries, personally bought the rights from Atwood.
“After almost 20 years of dreaming of bringing Alias Grace to the screen, it is beyond thrilling to see it all come together with such an amazing cast and crew,” she says.
Gadon’s co-stars include: Paul Gross (Hyena Road, Due South) and Oscar-winner Anna Paquin (True Blood) as Kinnear and Montgomery, the doomed victims; Rebecca Liddiard as a lively maid and friend to the teenage Grace; Kerr Logan as the short-tempered stable hand who was hung for the murders; and in a rare before-the-camera treat, Cronenberg himself as the Reverend.
So, after playing Grace and steeping herself in the facts of the case in the six-episode series, does Gadon think the teenage maid was truly a murderess? “We have our own theories,” says Gadon. “Margaret Atwood was very, very against us sharing them with you. I will say that we all got so caught up in the whodunit aspect and the web of lies.
“What’s interesting is that the book is historical fiction but Margaret did take every piece of historical fact and weave it into the story, which makes it so difficult to make up your mind whether she did it or not.”
Alias Grace is available for streaming on Netflix from Friday