Sarah Polley’s script makes for a thrilling domestic mystery.
Early in Alias Grace, a seasoned household worker warns young Grace that “a spider can spin a web overnight,” and that the maid, new to the house and to Canada, must be vigilant about such things. The Grace who tells us this story, removed from the situation by over a decade spent in jail and an asylum after being accused of murdering her superiors, is nothing if not vigilant. Based on a real historical figure and played with tremendous talent by Sarah Gadon, Grace eyes the man she speaks to with careful blankness, closely considers each word she speaks, and sews all the while. Idle hands, as they say.
Director Mary Harron’s miniseries, adapted from the Margaret Atwood novel by Sarah Polley, is its own deviously satisfying web. The opening scene finds Grace addressing herself in the mirror, subtly shifting her features to playact each of the roles society has put upon her: beleaguered innocent, she-demon, thief, madwoman, idiot, murderess. As a rare female unreliable narrator, Gadon’s Grace is both unnerving and unmissable, captivating even as she confuses both the audience and the psychologist (Edward Holcroft in the role of Dr. Jordan) tasked with evaluating her sanity.
As a 19th century housekeeper, Grace knows a lot about the particulars of homemaking, and although she reminds Dr. Jordan of this – perhaps in an attempt to appear docile and womanly – her love for sewing seems authentic. Harron, who directed all six episodes, uses this theme of stitching to weave together a story that’s both as broad as the ocean between North America and Grace’s Irish homeland, and as intimate as the female friendship that serves as the story’s very fabric. While Harron could have easily settled for making a Victorian-era Gone Girl, together with Polley, she creates a rich and empathetic story about the lengths a body must go to in order to survive the historically imposed limits of womanhood.
Alias Grace is a female survival story set in kitchens and cottages, where words and knowledge are the only weapons afforded to girls with no class status. In scenes of flashback, some shown two or more times with disturbing variations between each version, the truth of Grace’s dark history flits in and out of view as often as the eye of her needle. She purposely obscures these unclear moments – which include the murders in question and some sexual aspects of her history – with words that could be read as either deftly manipulative or naively oblivious. At one point, Grace talks about her own past as “a story” meant to “bring pleasure into a fellow being’s life,” while other times she points out through voiceover details that she deliberately didn’t mention to Dr. Jordan.
These linguistic gaps between Grace’s words and her intentions seem like evidence enough of her guilt, but more than that, Polley uses them to demonstrate the practiced tightrope-walk real women in these positions likely faced when trying to speak out about injustice. Early on, Grace’s closest friend Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard) faces potential public shame and is silenced. Mary is optimistic and brash, but when her reputation as a good woman is at stake, she becomes scared and angry before ultimately losing her chance to protect her own honor. Grace seems equally aware of the role she must play in order to restore her dignity, and equally willing to blur the truth to make that happen. When Dr. Jordan asks her about abuse at the hands of the asylum staff, she plays down her implied rape, and when he later makes explicit the language of abuse in reference to a different man – “Did he ever put his hands under your clothing? Were you lying down?” – she becomes upset at his specificity. Her survival technique is to weave a web from the outside in, trodding lightly around the truth to make her life – and her frustration at her constant mistreatment – more palatable to the man who could free her.
Grace’s evasiveness, then, may not be the sign of a guilty conscience, but of an intelligent woman who has been trapped throughout her life by the desires of men, and who now tries to find her freedom by saying as many of the right things as she possibly can. We see that she’s been leered at first by her father, then her employers, then her jailers, and now, as kind as he may be, by Dr. Jordan. She describes men’s lust as uninspired, saying that one man’s intentions were “not original” and snapping at another who calls her a slut, “You should think of some new words to use.” But while Grace relies on her mastery of language to keep herself afloat, her confidence gives way to disillusionment as the inevitable end of her story looms. “You won’t listen,” she says with a surprising note of desperation, “You won’t believe me.”
Each title card of Alias Grace includes revealing bits of poetry, and just as Grace’s story seems set to spin out of control, a quote from Emily Dickinson bring some clarity: “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind – As if my brain had split – I tried to match it – Seam by Seam – But could not make it fit.”
Grace, Mary, and their fellow women face grave domestic dangers, all of them the result of irreparable splits in their evolving world; inconsistent dreams and desires that their gender and class could not accommodate. The women of Haddon’s retelling want to be both independent and safe, both wanted and respected, while the men want both pleasure and integrity, to at once protect and take advantage. As her public-given aliases imply, Grace is the most contradictory figure of all. At one point she says, “God is everywhere,” and we believe that she believes it, but we believe her just as much when she acknowledges a friend’s maxim that “lying is charity”.
In the end, the mystery of Grace’s guilt is answered with a three-way split: a choice between science, superstition, and sinister manipulation that characters and viewers alike must reconcile with. When Polley’s whip-smart, circular script finally finds the center of its web, we’re reminded again of Grace making faces in the mirror. “And I wonder,” she says in that first scene, “How can I be all these different things at once?”