“I think of all the things that have been written about me…” begins Grace Marks at the start. A close-up of a red-haired servant with an Irish accent, looking at herself in a mirror. She plays with her image, portraying the different personas placed upon her by lawyers, judges, and newspapermen. She is a convicted murderess, after all. But, what does Grace Marks have to say?
Alias Grace is a six-part mini-series directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho), adapted from the best-selling novel by Margaret Atwood. It is based on the real Grace Marks, an Irish servant who immigrated to Canada in the 1840s and was convicted of murdering her master, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. It isn’t until up-and-coming (fictional) doctor of the mind, Dr. Simon Jordan, comes to Kingston Penitentiary that Grace finally has a chance to tell her story in her own words.
These words come through in interviews between Grace and Dr. Jordan, giving female perspective of the brutal side of servitude. Fully realized through Grace’s eyes, Harron brings female violence to the forefront instead of letting it linger in the shadows. Much of Alias Grace is about the constant mindset of female survival in a world of few options.
Grace’s story is compelling; she sits and pulls her needle up and through a quilt she’s making for the Governor of the prison’s daughter as she pulls Dr. Jordan further into the web of her story. Is it all true? Grace has a hard time remembering key details surrounding the murders, yet can recall, in almost perfect detail, stories of her life before and after the event. Harron keeps the truth about Grace ambiguous in how she directs Sarah Gadon’s performance, admitting she asked Gadon to play “Good Grace”, “Bad Grace”, and “Neutral Grace” in different takes in order to stitch together a multilayered portrait of a deeply complex woman.
This complexity might not be the same under the gaze of a male director. The question of guilt or innocence might be the only satisfying result. But Harron’s ending expresses something resembling hope. It really doesn’t matter. Grace has finally had her say in a lifetime of being silenced.
Alias Grace is available to stream on Netflix.
Maureen McGuirk is a fiction and screenwriter from the Midwest. She received her BFA in writing for film and television at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She freelances for Colaborator, a marketplace connecting companies and video professionals.