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Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace gives Netflix a murder mystery with a mind of its own


Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) seldom if ever rests easily. Netflix photo

Premiering: All six episodes begin streaming Friday, Nov. 3rd on Netflix
Starring: Sarah Gadon, Edward Holcroft, Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, Rebecca Liddiard, Kerr Logan, Paul Gross, Stephen Joffe, David Cronenberg
Produced by: Sarah Polley, Noreen Halpern, Margaret Atwood, Marla Boltman, D.J. Carson, Lori A. Walters

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Abused by her drunken father and then brutalized in a women’s prison, Irish immigrant Grace Marks perhaps has gone mad in the process.

Or might she be more or less completely sane -- or driven by a dual personality?

The absorbing Alias Grace, a new Canadian miniseries imported by Netflix, doesn’t irrefutably provide all of the answers during its six episodes. It delves deeply, though, as novelist Margaret Atwood invariably does in her tales of repressed, subjugated women in situations and systems controlled by men.

Unlike her futuristic The Handmaid’s Tale, which became a major success story for Hulu earlier this year, Alias Grace is based on grisly, real-life events. But a trio of key fictional characters are woven into this mid-1850s murder mystery. And believe it or not, two of them are empathetic men acting on Grace’s behalf.

Atwood’s novel was first published in 1996, a decade after Handmaid’s Tale hit bookstores. Sarah Gadon (Hulu’s 11.22.63) plays central figure Grace Marks, who’s spent 15 years in Canada’s Kingston Penitentiary after being co-convicted of the murders of house master Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his head housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin), with whom he was rather creepily intimate.

Grace’s years behind bars have been marked by beatings, sexual assaults and occasional solitary confinements in a severely cramped, coffin-shaped “cell” with a small round hole in it. As with Handmaid’s Tale, the narration is a little top-heavy at first. Things begin to jell, however, when young Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) is hired to probe Grace’s psyche in hopes of determining her culpability. A Methodist Reverend (David Cronenberg) is hopeful that she’ll be found mentally deficient, and thereby eligible to be freed.

“Are you afraid of me, Grace?” he asks in their first meeting.

“It’s too early to tell,” she replies.

Their sessions are held in the nearby penitentiary governor’s mansion, where Grace has resumed her nearly lifelong occupation as domestic servant. It’s there that she spins out her oft-tragic story while Dr. Jordan is increasingly mesmerized.

Left to fend for herself at age 15 after a storm-tossed, diseased-ravaged, two-month ship cruise from hell, Grace finds employment at a “fine house in Toronto” run by an authoritarian, condescending dowager. But she also finds the best of friends in fellow domestic Mary Whitney (very compellingly played by Rebecca Liddiard). Mary is a lively rebel who basically distrusts men but intends to find a good and honorable one for marriage purposes. This doesn’t go so well.

During their time together, Grace, Mary and the rest of the servants greatly enjoy a visit from a dashing peddler named Jeremiah (Zachary Levi from NBC’s Chuck). He’ll later play a pivotal role in an entirely different guise.

After being traumatized anew, Grace reluctantly takes another domestic servant job proffered by Nancy Montgomery, who offers to raise her monthly pay from $2 to $3. It’s there that she also meets surly but strapping stable hand James McDermott (Kerr Logan) and gentle, wide-eyed errand boy Jamie Walsh (Stephen Joffe). In due time, the drama’s key questions come down to this: Did Grace and McDermott together conspire to murder Montgomery and Kinnear? Or did he act alone before forcibly roping her in? Or might she have been in effect possessed by a spirit force?

Dr. Jordan eventually entertains another possibility. “She could be insane,” he says, “with the devious plausibility of the experienced maniac.” Now there’s something to consider.

Alias Grace doesn’t wrap everything up tidily -- and at times can be a bit messy and far-fetched. A subplot involving Dr. Jordan’s abandoned and suddenly amorous, ad hoc landlady easily could be excised. A climactic hypnosis session also seems rather cockamamie.

The performances are uniformly first-rate, though, and viewers will get closure rather than any dangling cliffhangers. Unlike Handmaid’s Tale, now in production for a second season, Alias Grace is strictly one and done. And in the end, it leaves much to think about in terms of a mind’s tangled webs -- and the intersection between true happiness and accepted contentment.

GRADE: A-minus

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