Monday 6 November 2017

First Impression: Alias Grace, Netflix, Episode 1

On the heels of Hulu’s incredibly successful The Handmaid’s Tale, comes another Margaret Atwood adaptation — this time of her 1996 historical novel, Alias Grace. It’s Netflix’s foray into nineteenth-century costume drama but with more vomit, violence and child abuse than we’ve come to expect in the genre and that’s just in Episode 1.

Netflix's Alias Grace (2017)
Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) has been in prison for 15 years for a murder she may or may not have committed when alienist Dr Simon Jordan is sent to interview her by a group lobbying for her release. Grace, who is more used to doctors measuring her head than asking what goes on inside it, is suspicious, unsure what to make of the psychoanalysis we’ve come to expect in our modern crime dramas. But she begins her story nonetheless, and, through frequent flashbacks, we learn about her immigration from Ireland to Canada, mother’s death and father’s drunkenness.

Gadon is compelling, her Irish lilt believable and poetic, her stare intense. But Edward Holcroft, as Dr Simon, is a little two dimensional in this first instalment — a plot device to get Grace to talk. I hope that in later episodes the frame story is developed further to stop the interruptions from getting old.

Mary and Grace in Alias Grace
The art direction is dark and gritty. I preferred the close ups, for instance in the prison or below deck on the ship, to the scenes where we could see the unconvincing backdrops. There’s a particularly arresting montage where we see a succession of beds being covered by quilts, the camera dwelling on the detail. It’s in moments like this that the idiosyncrasies of nineteenth-century life feel more vivid — just as in The Beguiled, which I reviewed recently.

Overall the episode does a good job of drawing viewers in, letting Atwood’s first person prose work its magic. The subject of a murderess is a fascinating one for us, as it was for Victorians, and the fact that the show is based on a true story (a double murder in 1843) seems designed to appeal to those devouring crime documentaries on Netflix, as much as those with an interest in the period. I’ll be watching, if not bingeing, the rest.

Sarah Gadon as Grace in Alias Grace (2017)
Did you watch the first episode of Alias Grace? What did you think? Let me know — here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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