If Making a Murderer had you hooked, and the first season of Serial made you wish you could read Adnan Syed’s mind, you’ll love Alias Grace! This latest TV adaptation of a Margaret Atwood novel (following close on the heels of the Emmy-winning The Handmaid’s Tale) is based on the true story of Canadian murderess — allegedly — Grace Marks, an Irish-Canadian maid who was convicted in 1843 of murdering her master Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Sarah Gadon plays Grace Marks with such beguiling innocence and sly humour that you’ll be hard-pressed to decide whether or not she’s guilty. Here are five reasons you should absolutely watch this six-hour miniseries that premieres Monday, September 25 at 9 p.m. E.T. on CBC, and globally outside of Canada on Netflix starting Friday, November 3.
Star Power/Girl Power
Alias Grace is full of stars! Not just the actors cast in the drama — Anna Paquin as Nancy Montgomery, Paul Gross as Thomas Kinnear (the yummy former Due South star is a total silver fox now!), and Zachary Levi as the peddler Jeremiah Pontelli — there is star power behind the scenes as well. Canada’s own Sarah Polley wrote and produced the adaptation of the Margaret Atwood work, and director Mary Harron is best known for her work on American Psycho and I Shot Andy Warhol. The project also clearly has scads of brilliant talented women behind and in front of the camera, which lends an extra layer of authenticity to Grace Mark’s story.
In terms of look and feel, Alias Grace miniseries puts one in mind of one of those delicious BBC costume dramas — think Pride & Prejudice starring Colin Firth as the brooding Mr. Darcy, or North & South starring the equally broody Richard Armitage. That should come as no surprise, since Canada has long excelled in this domain. But it’s not just the costumes that are authentic, its all the other details that make up this drama. One important detail that fleshes the Grace Marks character is her Irish accent. Sarah Gadon says she had Irish friends record her lines for her to listen to so she could perfect the accent. Rebecca Liddiard, who plays Grace’s friend Mary Whitney, and the other actresses who played housemaids went to pioneer camp to get into character. “We’ve got a pioneer village here in Toronto and we went there for the day and all of the employees there sat us down,” Liddiard says. “We learned to cook and clean, we learned how to stoke fires and churn butter. They made sure that we knew exactly what we were doing.” Sarah Polley also did her homework before adapting the Atwood novel for TV, reading a lot of Atwood’s source material, including the real Grace Marks’s confession. “I did a ton of research about that time period itself,” Polley says. “It’s a period of Canadian history I was really interested in.”
In our backyard
For those of us who are residents of the Greater Toronto Area in Southern Ontario, watching Alias Grace is like being transported back in time in your own city. The bustling city of Toronto in the 1800s, seen through the eyes of Grace Marks as a new Irish immigrant, is like stepping into a painting that is at once exotic and strangely familiar. “So much of the history is right here in Toronto, so it was just kind of fun to walk around and just think about this story that took place in my neighbourhood,” Liddiard says.
Having read Alias Grace, I really appreciated how beautifully Sarah Polley adapted the language of Margaret Atwood for the small screen. Far from being pretentious, Polley’s script brings Grace Mark’s story to life in vivid, colourful detail. I won’t ruin any of Gadon’s best lines, but I will say that the Mary Whitney character (Rebecca Liddiard) recites some rousing speeches from a certain notable Canadian figure, which Liddiard says she memorized and performed entirely by heart at her audition. “I loved those speeches!” Liddiard gushes.
Did she or didn’t she?
In an era where television and the movies have gotten a bit predictable, I love that Alias Grace doesn’t give you all the answers. It keeps you guessing about whether or not Grace is guilty right to the very end. “What’s so intoxicating about Margaret Atwood’s book is that you leave uncertain,”says British actor Edward Holcroft, who plays Dr. Simon Jordan. “You’re never totally sure because there are just so many different angles you could come at it from. I hope that people get as lost as we did in a sense when we filmed it, because there are so options, so many plausible outcomes.” That’s part of the thrill of watching a true crime whoddunit like Alias Grace, says Gadon. “You go on this journey of not being sure, having an idea, wanting them to have done it, feeling shame for that desire, and I think that’s all a part of the pleasure of the viewing experience.”
Are you planning on tuning in to Alias Grace? Let us know what you thought in the comments!
Alias Grace premieres Monday, September 25 at 9 p.m. E.T. on CBC and globally outside of Canada on Friday, November 3 on Netflix.
Hermione Wilson is a Junkie when it comes to all things Orphan Black, Game of Thrones and Supernatural, the show that introduced her to classic rock. She is a graduate of Humber College's journalism program, a current staff writer at Dovetail Communications, and an avid reader of sci-fi novels.