DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Earlier this year, Hulu presented "The Handmaid's Tale," a new version of the decades-old novel by Margaret Atwood. Hulu's version became the first show from a streaming service to win an Emmy as Best Drama Series. And today, another streaming service, Netflix, presents a new dramatization of another vintage Margaret Atwood novel. This one is called "Alias Grace." Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" was a dystopian fantasy about a woman trapped in a particularly oppressive type of servitude. Another of Atwood's novels, "Alias Grace," now comes to TV also courtesy of Netflix in a co-production with Canada's CBC. It too is about a servant who feels stifled by her occupation and her employers, but this one is based on a true story. And where "Handmaid's Tale" was set in the future, the six-part mini-series "Alias Grace" is a 19th century period piece. And it's a murder mystery, one with many more clues than solutions.
"Alias Grace" is the story of Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant who moved to Canada with her family in the 1850s and soon was forced to work as a household maid in one home, then another. Eventually, she was accused of conspiring to murder the master of one house and a fellow housekeeper and was convicted, though she never confessed. "Alias Grace" takes place after she's been incarcerated for many years, when she's visited by a doctor who interviews her over several visits to determine both her emotional state and her guilt.
This framing device makes Grace, played by Sarah Gadon, the most unreliable of narrators and the most interesting. Sometimes, as she relates her stories and memories to the young doctor, she speaks freely. Other times, she holds back, and only we, the viewers, hear her true thoughts. And still other times, she remains inscrutable and almost unreadable.
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SARAH GADON: (As Grace Marks) When I close my eyes, I can remember every detail of that house as clear as a picture. I could walk through every room of it blindfolded. It's strange to reflect. Of all the people living in that house, I was the only one of them left alive in six months' time.
BIANCULLI: This adaptation of "Alias Grace" is written in its entirety by the actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley. She not only gets the story's ambiguity. She relies on it. And each episode also has the same director, Mary Harron, who knows very well how to dive headfirst into the mind of a murderer. Her films include "American Psycho" and "I Shot Andy Warhol." In "Alias Grace," she relies a lot on natural lighting and meticulously recreated settings to bring Grace's world to life. "Alias Grace" also relies, of course, on the cast.
Sarah Gadon as Grace always portrays her as knowing more than she's letting on, as though she's well aware of the effect her story is having on the doctor as she relates it. And the surprise power in this drama comes from two familiar supporting players portraying the murder victims in flashbacks from Grace's perspective. The head housekeeper, Nancy, is played by Anna Paquin of HBO's "True Blood." And the Master of the house is played by Paul Gross, who a generation ago played the Canadian Mountie hero of the delightful "Due South" series on CBS, then starred in another great TV series, "Slings And Arrows."
In "Alias Grace," Gross is silver-haired and handsomely bearded, speaks with a heavy Scottish brogue and is a bit of a flirt, if not a rogue. When he interrupts Nancy and Grace upon the new servant's tour of the home, he notes Grace's interest in a somewhat risque painting, and with a playfulness that Gross captures perfectly, reveals a potential interest of his own.
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GADON: (As Grace Marks) What is this picture of?
ANNA PAQUIN: (As Nancy Montgomery) It's "Susanna And The Elders," which is a Bible subject.
GADON: (As Grace Marks) I know my Bible backwards and forwards, and this is not one of the stories in it.
PAQUIN: (As Nancy Montgomery) Yes, it is.
GADON: (As Grace Marks) It is not.
PAQUIN: (As Nancy Montgomery) You're not here to argue about paintings but to clean the room.
PAUL GROSS: (As Thomas Kinnear) Discussing theology, so early in the morning too?
PAQUIN: (As Nancy Montgomery) It is nothing for you to be bothered by.
GROSS: (As Thomas Kinnear) I shall like to know what you're discussing.
PAQUIN: (As Nancy Montgomery) It does not matter.
GROSS: (As Thomas Kinnear) Well, Grace, I can see that Nancy wishes to keep it a secret from me, but you must tell me.
GADON: (As Grace Marks) I was wondering if this picture is of a Biblical subject, as Nancy says.
GROSS: (As Thomas Kinnear) No. Strictly speaking, it is not. The story is in the Apocrypha.
GADON: (As Grace Marks) What might that be?
GROSS: (As Thomas Kinnear) You're very curious for such a young person. Soon I will have the most learned maid servant in all Richmond Hill. I'll have to put on a display like the mathematical pig in Toronto. The Apocrypha is a book where they put all the stories from biblical times they decided should not go in the Bible.
GADON: (As Grace Marks) Who decided? I thought the Bible was written by God. It's called the Word of God, and everyone terms it so.
GROSS: (As Thomas Kinnear) Perhaps God wrote it, but it was man who wrote it down, which is a little different. But those men were said to have been inspired by God, which means he spoke to them, told them what to do.
GADON: (As Grace Marks) Did they hear voices?
GROSS: (As Thomas Kinnear) Aye.
BIANCULLI: As with "The Handmaid's Tale," "Alias Grace" manages to be a drama set in another time, written in another era by Margaret Atwood, that speaks specifically and almost uncannily to today's audience. "Alias Grace" manages in its six episodes to address such issues as the reception of immigrants, the dangers of illegal abortion and, most of all, the predatory nature of powerful men and how others can conspire to keep their crimes hidden.
The central crimes in "Alias Grace," though, the deaths of which the real Grace Marks was convicted, becoming a, quote, "celebrated murderess" in the process are less obvious. Different viewers watching the entirety of "Alias Grace" are likely to reach different conclusions about Grace's guilt or innocence. I suspect, though, that every viewer will agree upon one particular verdict - television, in adapting the novels of Margaret Atwood, now has a record of 2 for 2.
DAVIES: David Bianculli teaches TV and film at Rowan University. His latest book, "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific," is now out in paperback. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "Ladybird," the new semi-autobiographical film written and directed by Greta Gerwig. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON'S BIG HAPPY FAMILY'S "NO OUTERWEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.