November 3, 2017 at 7:00 AM
Rather than a stylized dystopian horror set in some near future, the gothic plot of "Alias" is rooted in history — the true story of Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant living in Canada who was convicted in 1843 of murder and sentenced to hang. Both she and her alleged accomplice, James McDermott, were found guilty of killing their employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper (and mistress), Nancy Montgomery, but only McDermott ended up at the gallows. Grace, perhaps because she was both young and beautiful, was ultimately given a lighter sentence; after 30 years behind bars, she was released.
In both Atwood's meticulously researched but fictionalized retelling and the new miniseries, Grace (Sarah Gadon), who's already incarcerated, ends up describing her life story to a young psychiatrist, Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft). The good doctor becomes taken with this enigmatic yet exceedingly proper woman, who claims she remembers nothing of the murders and pleaded guilty only at her lawyers' insistence.
Despite their differences, "Alias Grace" has the same timeliness that helped win "The Handmaid's Tale" the Emmy for best drama. And it likely won't be the last Atwood adaptation we get. Darren Aronofsky has announced plans to make a series from the MaddAddam trilogy, which looked like it might land at HBO. That deal fell through, but Aronofsky said he wasn't giving up. And last year, MGM Television bought the rights to Atwood's novel "The Heart Goes Last," according to Deadline.
That book, about desperation during an economic depression, was published in 2015, but the others have been around for much longer. "The Handmaid's Tale" came out in 1985, and "Alias Grace" about a decade later. "Oryx and Crake," the first of the MaddAddam books, is 14 years old.
So why is it that, all of a sudden, there's a resurgence of interest in Atwood's work?
"I think it's a scary time," said Sarah Polley, the actor, director and Oscar-nominated writer who adapted "Alias Grace" for television. "She has such insight and such a detailed curiosity about the past and where we've come from, and I think because this is such an unstable time in the world politically — and for women — it's a moment where having context is helpful in terms of analyzing and figuring out our situation right now."
Even Atwood's futuristic stories are based on history. In "The Handmaid's Tale" — a book about women forced to bear children for rich couples in a draconian religious society where the population is dwindling — the horrors are real.
"One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the 'nightmare' of history, nor any technology not already available," Atwood wrote in the New York Times, citing the Nazis' secret Lebensborn breeding program, among other nightmares. "No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities."
The echoes between the premise for "The Handmaid's Tale" — which seemed outrageous even to Atwood in 1984 — and our current moment is obvious to many fans of the show, especially the way the fictional government of Gilead began slowly revoking hard-won civil liberties.
"Alias Grace" resonates especially with the resurgence of the #MeToo campaign on social media, in which women and some men have gone public with stories of sexual harassment and abuse.
That's because the book is really about storytelling — about how a woman with very little power in society seizes some by telling her own tale. No one else who was there the day of the murders is still alive, so Grace is Dr. Jordan's only chance of getting to the truth. A quick study, Grace is aware of her newfound influence, so she stretches out her yarn, like a Victorian-era Scheherazade.
The scripts immediately spoke to director Mary Harron, whom Polley handpicked to spearhead all six episodes of the miniseries.
"Usually when people send me stuff, it feels a bit alien to me," Harron said. "But it felt as if it could have been written for me."
Harron, who also directed "American Psycho" and "The Moth Diaries," has plenty of experience with period films, not to mention female-centric stories, and her movies are remarkably comfortable with ambiguity, especially when it comes to characters who may or may not be insane.
One thing that shocked Harron about the story was how brutal the class system was in Canada in 1843.
"The Irish were looked down on the way that people look down on immigrants here," she said.
Polley initially wanted to turn the book into a film but quickly realized the only way she could include threads such as the immigration story was to make it into a miniseries. That component was important to her, especially for today's audience. In the show, the process of Grace and her family traveling by boat from Ireland to Canada isn't a hopeful journey so much as a nightmarish fantasia of death and disease echoing recent stories about despondent refugees — including young children — fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.
"I think we forget why people immigrate and how hard it is and what it looks like," Polley said. "I feel like, in the current climate, it's important to remind ourselves that people don't usually immigrate for fun."
The series is equally unflinching when it comes to portraying the monstrous way women were treated at the time. In one episode, Grace's good friend — another domestic servant — realizes she's pregnant. Her options are few after her high-society paramour falsely insists the child isn't his: She can continue the pregnancy, which means her boss will certainly kick her out to live on the streets, or she can use all of her savings to pay for a dangerous, primitive procedure to abort the fetus.
Harron says Atwood's "very incisive, clear-eyed, unsentimental look at how society works" gives readers and viewers some sense of how stuck these women felt.
In "Alias" as in "Handmaid's Tale," Atwood also shows how a patriarchal society turns women against one another. In the latter, "aunts" physically and emotionally abuse the fertile women being groomed for ritual rape; in "Alias," it's most obvious in the relationship between Grace and Nancy, the murder victim.
"Both of them, they're so powerless, really, and their situation is so desperate," Harron said. "They have so little — they could be kicked out to die in the street."
The squabbling at the bottom keeps the powerful in charge. Obviously, much has changed since those days. But, as we've seen with so many influential men finally being called out for their bad, sometimes criminal behavior, a lot has also remained the same.
"The sexual exploitation of young women, as we know, is still a problem," Harron said. "I'm shocked by the stuff we're hearing. You think you know how things work, but you don't."