Alias Grace: Sarah Polley’s excellent Margaret Atwood adaptation comes to CBC

CBC has made it part of their mandate to focus on adapting more Canadian novels into television projects. They’ve already done it recently with Anne—Moira Walley-Beckett’s take on Anne of Green Gables, in production on Season 2 now—and Allan Hawco’s Caught, his adaptation of Lisa Moore’s novel.

Now the network goes all-in with Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood’s novel about a murderess in 1840s Canada. Debuting Monday at 9 p.m., the six-parter has been adapted by Sarah Polley and stars Sarah Gadon in the lead role of Grace Marks. The project ticks all the boxes of what’s top of mind in society—women’s rights and the immigrant story among them—and a hot genre in true crime. Alias Grace is based on the real-life case of domestic servant Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant who was imprisoned in Kingston Penitentiary for teaming with stable-hand James McDermott (played by Kerr Logan) and murdering their employer, Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin). The book and the production introduce a fictional doctor, psychiatrist Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), into the mix, who meets with Grace to discuss what she recalls of the crimes. Did Grace really commit the murders she was convicted of? And where does housemaid Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard) fit into what happened?

“Adapting Alias Grace was like a boot camp for screenwriting,” Polley says during a media press day in Toronto. After buying the rights to the novel years ago, Polley initially thought Alias Grace would be a feature film. Those plans were scuttled because the book contained too many time jumps and changes in characters’ views and voices to make a movie feasible. A six-hour television series was perfect, giving her the opportunity to fit everything in. Once she had the scripts done, Polley began shopping them around; executive producer Noreen Halpern snapped it up for Halfire Entertainment after having a coffee with Polley.

“Sarah handed me the six scripts and I read them in one sitting,” Halpern recalls with a smile. “Once you start reading them, you can’t stop. The writing is so compelling.” Equally compelling is the colour palette devised by director-executive producer Mary Harron. Washed-out greys are the backdrop to scenes in the Kingston prison, dark grime on the ship from Ireland to Canada, rich browns in the prison governor’s office where Simon and Grace’s conversations take place, and golds seeping into Grace’s reflections of her happy days at the Kinnear farm.

“When she arrives in Toronto, which is supposed to be this promised land, it is a sea of mud,” Harron says. “When Grace sees the farm for the first time, it’s bathed in golden light. Even though terrible things happened at this farm, in her memory it was a beautiful place.”

What really makes Alias Grace hum is the cast. Gadon is spectacular as Grace and Holcroft is equally to task as Simon. In Sunday’s opening moments, Grace serves as narrator, describing her long prison term and the reason she was there in the first place.

“I think of all the things that have been written about me,” Grace says. “That I am an inhuman female demon. That I am an innocent victim of a blaggard forced against my will and in danger of my own life. That I was too ignorant to know how to act and to hang me would be judicial murder.” While she states each version of herself, Gadon twitches and teases her face to match each person the public views. With such skill in presenting the right face, who’s to say Grace isn’t playing the victim in her chats with Simon? Is she playing him for a fool, hoping he’ll help to have her pardoned?

“We have our own theories,” Gadon says with a smile. “Margaret Atwood was very, very against us sharing them with you. I will say that we all got so caught up in the whodunit aspect and the web of lies. What’s interesting is that the book is historical fiction but Margaret did take every piece of historical fact and weave it into the story, which makes it so difficult to make up your mind whether she did it or not.”

Look for more exclusive Alias Grace interviews with cast members Sarah Gadon, Kerr Logan and Rebecca Liddiard in the coming weeks.

Alias Grace airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBC.

Images courtesy of CBC.

 

 

Greg David
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Greg David

Prior to becoming a television critic and owner of TV, Eh?, Greg David was a critic for TV Guide Canada, the country's most trusted source for TV news. He has interviewed television actors, actresses and behind-the-scenes folks from hundreds of television series from Canada, the U.S. and internationally. He is a podcaster, public speaker, weekly radio guest and educator, and past member of the Television Critics Association.
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