Netflix’s “Alias Grace” is a captivating, brutal mystery

“He likes to picture the sufferings I’ve endured. He listens to all of it, like a child listening to a fairy tale.” — Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon)

Netflix’s latest period piece hacks to bits expectations of a tiresome period piece, locking its audience in an intriguing six hours of solitary confinement. “Alias Grace” leaves old and new fans of Margaret Atwood’s classic with an addictive, binge-worthy tale of psychological contemplation, screwing minds and expectations with a masterful elegance not replicated or respected by supposed mind-bending programs today.

The mastermind of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and writer-producer Sarah Polley and director Mary Harron together create a slice of unmatched ambiguity drenched in such psychological seduction that viewers will, without a doubt, willfully binge their mental states away for the show’s skillful direction of doubt and quotable conversations made by compelling characters — Sarah Gadon’s dazzling performance inarguably is one of best embodiments of mystery.

Based on the 1996 Margaret Atwood novel of the same name — and of actual 19th century events — “Alias Grace” tells the story of Grace Marks, who, after being accused and convicted of the 1843 murder of her employer and his housekeeper, is sentenced to life in prison and is bestowed the title “murderess” — an object of curiosity in her Canadian society. Fifteen years after her conviction, a psychiatrist by the name Simon Jordan (played by Edward Holcroft) is brought in to dissect the so-called murderess’ mental state and weigh whether she is truly insane, or a pathological devil in disguise.

What “Alias Grace” lacks in simplicity and conventionality it shines in its contagiously stimulating use of language, carrying with it a potency that will be remembered, referenced — and definitely quoted —for decades to come. From startling thoughts like “I’d rather be a murderess than a murderer” to biting truths like “If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged,” “Alias Grace” voices a thorough, sometimes hard to imagine autopsy of ourselves and humanity as a whole. Rather than force-feed these thoughts presumptuously, this show partakes in hypnotism, with us giving it express permission to mess with our moral compass and analyze the hypocrisies we give into ourselves.

This period piece stands, surrounded by hundreds of works made before it, with a dignity that cannot possibly be denied notice because each conversation flows from lips with an impact in mind that evokes pauses, rewinds and social commentary between audience members before moving onto the next.

Polley and Harron’s collaboration resulted in a show that effortlessly toys with society’s truth bias. The deeper one delves into the mind of Grace Marks, the deeper the seed of doubt. Never is there a moment in which audience expectation is proven true. “Alias Grace” is a master manipulator of uncertainty, an aspect that some who expect a “problem-solved” conclusion will find troublesome. Rather than being a pointless several hours of frustration, the show’s brutally blatant avoidance of truth is why “Alias Grace” is a superior addition to the tiresome period piece lineup and a worthy addition to Netflix’s growing successful adaptations.

While the performances painted a beautifully entertaining picture of an ugly time in history — along with all of the melancholic implications — Gadon completely embraced the life of an enigma with a grace that left all who watch her spellbound, inducing within them temporary moments of amnesia, making them forget the sometimes not very obvious fact that Grace Marks and those who she associated with were, for the most part, fictional characters. Gadon brought all of her hats as faithful and charming, yet possibly sinister Grace Marks, her subtle moments of incrimination and uneasy silences tainting her more honest, God-fearing personality — enhancing the show’s refreshing lack of viewer brownnosing and, thus, making “Alias Grace” all the more enjoyable.

While I do implore those who are interested in watching “Alias Grace” to pay attention to every bit of dialogue, do not sit down expecting a snore fest of mindless conversation. “Alias Grace” is a character story — the entertainingly idiosyncratic character dynamics and interactions overshadowing any nitpick noticed by extreme fans of the novel. What Netflix’s miniseries lacks in typical period piece action — over-emphasized sexual moments, duels for honor, and petty quarrels — it more than entertains with Gadon’s hypnotic performance, surprising moments of unpredictability, and the show’s lack of punches pulled during moments of social commentary. “Alias Grace” is a well-executed and put-together puzzle, leaving its audience with an aftertaste of nothing less than a desire for more.


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