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Alias Grace review: Is Netflix’s new show the Handmaid’s Tale follow-up we need, or the one we deserve?

Alias Grace review: Can Sarah Polley and Mary Harron’s Netflix show, a spiritual sequel to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, capture the zeitgeist in a similar manner?

tv Updated: Nov 03, 2017 08:35 IST
Rohan Naahar
Rohan Naahar
Hindustan Times
Alias Grace,Alias Grace Review,Margaret Atwood
Sarah Gadon anchors the episodic atrocities her character suffers in Alias Grace.

Alias Grace
Cast - Sarah Gadon, Edward Holcroft, Anna Paquin, Zachary Levi, David Cronenberg
Rating - 3.5/5

Stairs are an important, and a rather dreadful motif in Alias Grace, the lush new Margaret Atwood TV adaptation. We see them - like the show’s heroine, Grace Marks - in fevered flashes, and as haunting, almost-mocking metaphors for the prison she lives in, and the freedom she aspires towards.

There is the rickety, rotting ladder that Grace emptily stares at during her journey from Ireland to Canada in the mid-1800s; a cruel reminder that fresh air is only a few feet away from the disease-ridden hull she’s cramped into with other immigrants like her.

There is the more conventional staircase that separates her from her aristocratic masters at the grand mansion she finds work at; a literal representation of the show’s upstairs-downstairs approach to class.

And then there’s the shrouded wooden ladder underneath the floorboards from which she is said to have pushed a woman to her death.

For decades, Grace – whose story was turned into a feminist fable by Atwood in her novel – is haunted by the images of these stairs, locked away, first in an asylum and then in a penitentiary. So often has she been accused of this crime that she begins questioning what is real and what isn’t. To make matters worse, she can picture, in great detail, the victim’s face. She can see the life leaving her eyes, the trickle of blood escaping her mouth, and she can hear the sound… She can hear the fabric as the body is dragged across the wooden floor, and she can hear the crack of breaking bones as it tumbles to the bottom.

But she refuses to believe that she did it. Others may call her a ‘celebrated murderess’, rich families might invite her into their homes to gawk at, to catch a glimpse up close of a new attraction, a celebrity - just like their American cousins, who only a few years later, would pay good money to be photographed with the slain body of outlaw Jesse James.

But for decades, Grace maintains her innocence.

While Alias Grace shares more than a few similarities with this year’s other, and decidedly more celebrated Atwood adaptation, The Handmaid’s Tale – mostly thematic, but good news for fans regardless – it would be more accurately described as the world’s oldest true-crime tale; like Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast meets Euripedes’ Medea. I’m immensely proud of that description, by the way.

But unlike the dystopian Handmaid’s Tale - which, in all likelihood is the biggest reason why most people are intrigued about Alias Grace at all – it’s story is firmly rooted in the past, in a time when men can switch careers as a ‘peddler’ to a ‘hypnotist’ because “there’s a real appetite for it now more than ever.”

It is also very, very Canadian. But that’s hardly surprising, what with the exorbitant number of national treasures involved – Atwood, of course, and director Mary Harron (American Psycho), writer Sarah Polley, and in a cameo appearance, the great David Cronenberg.

Polley and Harron’s involvement in particular – they wrote and directed all six episodes – brings that much sought-after authorship that TV always strives for but so rarely attains. Like Jean Marc Vallee (who directed all seven episodes of HBO’s Big Little Lies) and David Lynch (who returned to direct every episode of the Twin Peaks revival, because who else?), Alias Grace is bound by the singular vision of three unique voices working in harmony, spearheaded by a gripping central performance by Sarah Gadon.

In terms of its rather episodic structure – Grace recounts the misfortunes of her past to a kind doctor – it’s strangely similar to Lars Von Trier’s morbidly entertaining film, Nymphomaniac – which, at five-and-a-half-hours, is longer than the entirety of this show, believe it or not.

Depressingly, though, while the women in both the Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace wear bonnets on their heads and demure looks on their faces, and while one of the shows is set in the near future and the other a couple of centuries in the past, they’re saying the same things: Women have it rough. And since both shows are, understandably, a comment on the present, chances are, they always will.

Alias Grace doesn’t offer the fantasy of exploitation flicks, and nor is it as insightful as the Handmaid’s Tale, but as a historical cautionary tale about gender, class, and identity, it’s is a solid entry in a rather cluttered genre.

Watch the Alias Grace trailer here

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar

First Published: Nov 03, 2017 08:31 IST