Based on a novel by Margaret Atwood, the Netflix miniseries Alias Grace (2017) may be difficult to watch, but it’s the right kind of difficult to watch. Set in the mid-nineteenth century, it’s about Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), an Irish immigrant to Canada who, as the story begins, has served fifteen years for her role in a double murder. Grace, whose case has certain ambiguities, is considered a victim of circumstance by some, and supporters are working toward her release. The kindly Reverend Verrenger (David Cronenberg) has secured the services of Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), a psychiatrist, to perform an evaluation of Grace and, hopefully, deliver a favorable report to the government. To that end, he arranges a series of sessions, during which Grace tells her life story—from her emigration from Ireland to her early life in Canada, her modest career as a servant, and ultimately to the ghastly crimes that gained her notoriety as a “celebrated murderess.”
Told in six perfectly clocked parts, Alias Grace is an exceptional miniseries, a coherent, confidently executed vision from screenwriter Sarah Polley and director Mary Harron. At times bleak and harrowing, it’s at once an engrossing mystery, a penetrating psychological character study, and a potent, chilling work of feminist commentary. Grace’s subtly unreliable narration casts a fascinating cloud of uncertainty over the tale, ultimately delivering answers to questions that are at once convincing and ambiguous. It’s one of those rare mysteries that manages to satisfy viewer curiosity without demystifying itself; its eerie ambience lingers even as the story finds its conclusion. Anchored by Gadon’s shifty, mesmerizing performance, the cast is bolstered by fine support from Holcroft, Rebecca Liddiard, Kerr Logan, Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, and Paul Gross, among others. The packaging—a quiet, rustic historical chiller—didn’t have me convinced this was my type of thing, but I’m very glad I gave it a chance, because it’s outstanding.