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Hidden Powers

Why Margaret Atwood’s “Alias Grace” makes subversive television.

Courtesy of Jan Thijs/Netflix

Each episode of Alias Grace, a new television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel, ends with a haunting a cappella folk song. “Come all you fair and tender girls / That flourish in your prime,” warbles Anne Briggs, who recorded the ballad in 1963, the year she turned 19. “Beware, beware if you’re good and fair / Let no man steal your thyme.” This was perhaps meant in the folk tradition as a word of gentle caution about the shame of losing virginity. In Briggs’s version, however, the lyrics sound subversive, erotic—as if one’s secret garden is worth protecting not for reputation’s sake but for the pleasure of keeping something hidden away.

Briggs left the music business in the 1970s and willfully vanished from public view to live on the Irish moors. She is now 73, just five years younger than Atwood. When Briggs was recording music in the mid-1960s, Atwood was staging her own protofeminist acts of defiance on the page. She has been careful not to call her first novel exactly a feminist text: The Edible Woman, in which a Toronto businesswoman loses the ability to eat after talking to men, was published in 1969, some years before the second wave swelled into full force. As Atwood sees it, her story anticipated, rather than communed with, the dialogue to come. Even now, she refuses to slap an ideological label on any of her books. That includes The Handmaid’s Tale, which, with Hulu’s adaptation earlier this year, has widely been seen as a warning against misogyny in the age of Trump.

By the time Atwood wrote Alias Grace in the mid-1990s, however, it is clear that she was grappling with many of the big questions that arose during second- and third-wave feminist movements. Notably, historical questions of power and who controls the narrative: how women have been denied the ability to tell their own stories, how their emotions were once diagnosed as outbursts of hysteria, how they communicated in clandestine and coded ways when men wouldn’t listen to them. Grace Marks was a real woman who lived in the tangle of just these questions and, Atwood imagines in her novel, drew the people around her deep into them, since it is entirely possible that Grace killed two people. It is also entirely possible that she was innocent when she was imprisoned for the crimes at the age of only 16, in 1843.

The book has now become a six-part CBC-Netflix miniseries, with every episode written and produced by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron. This team joins a long line of women who’ve made it their business to recover Grace Marks’s life. The pioneer writer Susanna Moodie was among the first to relate Grace’s story, in her 1853 book Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush. Atwood drew on Moodie’s account when she drafted her novel, which has now been filmed by women and set to music that captures an oppressed woman’s longing. Along with the theme of secrecy, a beleaguered women’s culture bubbles up through these efforts, a culture Alias Grace is helping to reconstruct. Centering on interviews with Grace (Sarah Gadon), who is expertly evasive and opaque, this is a show about a woman who has lost everything but her secrets, which are her most valuable and coveted possession.

Grace Marks, historical record has it, was an Irish immigrant living in Toronto. Her mother died of a shipborne illness on the long passage over the Atlantic in 1840. Her father was an abusive, raging alcoholic who sent her to work as a servant to support the large family. Life in nineteenth-century Canada was nothing short of brutal for a poor girl from abroad, a series of debasements and scullery work. In Atwood’s novel, Marks goes to work in an upper-class Toronto household. There she finds a kindred spirit in Mary Whitney, an insolent maid who is sleeping with the son of the house and becomes pregnant. He refuses to acknowledge their relationship. Mary dies suddenly in a puddle of gore after a botched abortion. The injustice of this death lodges itself deep inside Grace’s psyche, even as she moves on to work in another house with a new family.

It’s in this new family setting that the murders are committed. Grace works directly for a strict housemaid named Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin), who in turn is having an illicit affair with their employer, a wealthy Ontario rancher named Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross). (He has also made unwanted advances toward the teenage Grace.) Grace works alongside another Irish immigrant named James McDermott (Kerr Logan), who resents his moneyed employers with a festering hatred that boils over into venomous rants about killing and justice. Perhaps Grace is emboldened by these eruptions; perhaps she recoils in terror. But at some point, Montgomery and Kinnear end up dead in the root cellar—one is strangled, the other shot—and the courts indict both servants for the murders. McDermott is hanged, and Grace sentenced to life in prison for her alleged role as an accomplice.

Grace’s first-person narrative alternates, in the novel, with the story of Dr. Jordan, a man of science who comes to interview her in prison 15 years after her conviction. Atwood describes him as a handsome man, who has begun to understand his own allure to women:

It was knowledge they craved; yet they could not admit to craving it, because it was forbidden knowledge—knowledge with a lurid glare to it; knowledge gained through a descent into the pit. He has been where they could never go, seen what they could never see; he has opened up women’s bodies, and peered inside. In his hand, which has just raised their own hands towards his lips, he may once have held a beating female heart.

In her adaptation, Sarah Polley flips this insight around, putting the words into Grace’s mouth, at the end of one of their sessions. “It is knowledge of me you crave, Doctor, forbidden knowledge,” she begins. It is her “beating female heart,” she observes, that he wants to hold. That Polley gives Grace these lines tells you nearly everything you need to know about her version of the story. Television has the privilege of being subtle when it comes to cinematic style and long arcs of character development, but it often needs to be more compact and explicit than literature when drilling into broad themes. Dr. Jordan’s obsession with female hearts might make him a skilled interviewer in the book. But in the show, he’s lost that level of control. Here we have Grace seeing exactly what this man needs from her, how he intends to mine her stories and steal her time. She can manipulate this impulse to her advantage.

Dr. Jordan is clearly charmed by Grace, who mends clothes while telling her story with the ease of a skilled raconteur. It is clear that she can never quite be trusted to tell the whole truth. When she talks about the murders, Grace never commits to a solid timeline. Maybe James McDermott forced her to take part in the bloody deeds. Maybe the killings were Grace’s idea all along. Maybe Grace and James were tender paramours. Or maybe he assaulted her and forced her to do unspeakable things against her will. Maybe Grace had choices, and maybe she was faced—like Mary Whitney—with an impossible situation.

Gadon’s Grace is sphinxlike on the subject of her memories, but clear-eyed and artless when she is talking about guilt. She never comes off as a temptress or schemer, but rather alludes often, and sans melodrama, to the fact she has been horribly abused by men most of her life. This trauma seems to have left her somewhat hardened and cold, detached from her body and all that has been inflicted upon it—and yet men seem terribly aroused by the idea of her, a young girl who could kill.

In 1981, Margaret Atwood published a poem that reads: “Don’t ask for the true story; why do you need it? / It’s not what I set out with, or what I carry.” Grace, as portrayed on-screen, seems to mock and evade this same question. She doesn’t carry the truth of the crime with her. She cannot access it, though it seems to be the currency that makes her irresistible.

Eventually pardoned after almost 30 years in jail, the real Grace fled to the United States, where she was never heard from again. All we know is that she chose to disappear, to live out her days away from headlines and away from the hypnotists and psychologists who claimed they could unlock her most private thoughts. Beware, beware, you fair and tender girls.

Polley is the ideal translator of Atwood’s material, a filmmaker obsessed with circling the truth over and over, even when there are no clear answers. Polley has claimed in many interviews that she read Alias Grace at 17 and tried to option the rights back then, she so identified with its elliptical, looping structure. The novel was a huge influence on her acclaimed 2012 documentary, Stories We Tell, in which she discovered, in the process of filming a family portrait, that her father was not her biological father and that her mother, who died when she was eleven, had had a passionate affair with a film producer in Montreal. The documentary is an intricate layer cake of family deceptions and mythologies, with seismic personal confessions that shake Polley and her siblings along the way. Polley carried Grace Marks in her heart, as she came to realize that her mother was harboring as many half-truths as Atwood’s narrator, and that her mother, too, had managed to elude comprehension in her own lifetime.

Mary Harron also brings a unique sympathy to the project—as she, too, has been fascinated throughout her career by women who are portrayed as villainous and craven. In her 1996 film, I Shot Andy Warhol, Harron explores the life of Valerie Solanas, who wrote the feminist classic SCUM Manifesto and attempted to murder Andy Warhol, convinced he was stealing and profiting from her ideas. “Valerie was an extreme example,” Harron said in an interview in 2000, “of how someone can be so brilliant and her life goes so wrong.” Solanas had, she felt, “been consigned to history as this lunatic, almost nothing written about her.” The same might have been said of Grace Marks. A gruesome footnote in history, she might have been completely forgotten had Atwood not dredged up her story from the archival depths.

Harron does something so delicate with her direction that viewers may almost not notice it. She shows certain scenes—like the scene of the murder—multiple times, in quick, Rashomon-like flashes. Each time, the scene plays out a bit differently, from a different angle, like a high-art Choose Your Own Adventure. We never know which plotline is authentic: We see Grace and James in the cellar; Grace is strangling Nancy; now she’s cowering in a corner; now she’s watching in horror as James chops Nancy to bits. What happened? We have no clue. Even Grace doesn’t know. When Harron finally lets the camera rest on Grace for the series’ longest scene, she allows the tint of the film to deepen into Gothic shadow. Even when the truth is revealed, it is revealed in the dark.

It sounds flippant to call 2017 the Year of Atwood, as if a writer who has been working for six decades could have just one year. Still, it does make sense that the themes of both Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale are being taken up and imagined richly, visually, now. Women are still fighting to be heard and believed, and to disappear if they so choose. The two shows provide fascinating bookends to the history of this struggle. Despite Atwood’s and the Hulu cast’s resistance to calling the Handmaid’s Tale a work of feminist art, it openly critiques structures of gendered oppression and encourages women to fight back. (The show inspired a lot of “Don’t let the bastards get you down” merch.) Alias Grace is, more like Atwood’s early work, centered on protofeminist ideas: how furtiveness and weakness can be strengths, how a retreat into anonymity on the moors can be the end goal.

If one Atwood television project succeeds most, it is Alias Grace, in no small part because of Polley and Harron’s devotion toward their main character, whose gaze is allowed to meet the viewer’s in the series’ final moments. Grace makes us witnesses to her story, even if she has twisted it and us in the process. Her stare is warm but blank. After six episodes with Grace, we are left with more questions than answers. In the end, she steals our time. But I wouldn’t want it back.