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Netflix’s ‘Alias Grace’ explores the mind of a notorious murderer

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Sarah Gadon is held prisoner in Alias Grace.
Photo: Netflix / Courtesy

Two and a half stars

Alias Grace Available November 3 on Netflix.

At first glance, Netflix miniseries Alias Grace seems to have little in common with fellow Margaret Atwood adaptation The Handmaid’s Tale, which has been one of the most acclaimed TV series of 2017. Handmaid is a politically oriented piece of dystopian science fiction, while Alias Grace is a more straightforward historical story, a fictionalized take on a real-life murder case that scandalized Toronto in the 1840s. But while the six-episode Alias Grace, adapted from Atwood’s 1996 novel by screenwriter Sarah Polley and director Mary Harron, starts out as the kind of restrained and respectable period piece that might air on PBS, it gradually questions its own narrative integrity, turning into a story about the unknowability of events whose participants have conflicting views on the truth.

It’s still mostly restrained and respectable, though, with modest production values and uneven performances. Sarah Gadon makes for a compelling lead as Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant working as a household servant who’s convicted of participating in the murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin). The story is framed mainly by interviews taking place 15 years later between Grace and the American Dr. Jordan (Edward Holcroft), who’s been hired to prepare a report on her mental state, for a potential pardon.

Grace lays out her entire life story in flashbacks (the murder itself isn’t depicted until the fifth episode), and a lot of it feels like standard period-drama material, and probably would have benefited from being condensed into a feature film. Holcroft’s performance is stiff and unconvincing, and Jordan never comes off as a fully realized character, despite getting his own distracting subplots. Grace’s inscrutability is fascinating but also distancing, and the story ends with neither Jordan nor the audience any closer to understanding this fundamentally unreliable woman.

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