Based on the award-winning 1996 novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace is a beguiling tale of murder, mystery and memory. A work of historical fiction, the novel is inspired by a true case of double murders committed in nineteenth-century Canada. The new miniseries is a splendid adaptation of a masterful novel. Alias Grace was first aired in Canada in early October and is now available worldwide on Netflix.

Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) and stablehand James McDermott (Kerr Logan) are convicted of murdering their employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin) in 1843. While McDermott hangs, Grace is spared the noose, gaining instead a tormented life sentence split between an inhuman prison for women and an asylum in Ontario. She remembers nothing of the crime for which she is serving time, but has been in prison long enough to lose hope of freedom and a future.

Unlike the author’s previously adapted-for-TV novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which was set in a dystopian future, Alias Grace is situated in a dark chapter from the past that has been recreated to tell a story of crime, friendship, and subversion of patriarchy from inside wooden boxes designed for torture.

Alias Grace.

At the start of the six-episode miniseries, Grace meets Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), a psychoanalyst. Jordan is researching Grace’s case and is hoping to help revive her memory of the crime to determine whether she truly an amnesiac or, as almost everyone believes, a liar. Grace tells him the story of her life and he listens – engrossed and smitten by her voice and enthralled by her resilience in the face of her hardships. They meet every day at the house of a governor who believes Grace to be innocent. While they talk, she sews quilts and spins her story – long and inviting and full of every possible emotion. Jordan can find no escape or respite, unable to distinguish between fact and fiction.

Producer Sarah Polley’s masterful writing transforms a brilliant novel into a captivating television experience. The attention to detail and aesthetic treatment place the show squarely within Atwood’s poetic universe. It is a story of a difficult time, made beautiful by Polley’s writing and Mary Harron’s flawless direction. Sarah Gadon gives an incredible a-star-has-arrived performance – hypnotic, powerful and in control of every frame in which she is present.

Grace is a pitiable child in charge of her siblings, a loyal friend, an honest worker, an innocent bystander, a blushing young woman, a merciless butcher, and a murderess – she is all or nothing. During her time in jail and at the asylum, she suffers unimaginable odds. But by talking to Jordan about parsnips, word associations and dark cellars, she regains control of her narrative. By not letting Jordan gaze into her mind, Grace keeps what is most private to herself. In a world in which everything has been taken from her, this is the biggest source of power that she may hold. While we get glimpses into her mind, she never truly lets the audience in either. Alias Grace is the story of Grace Marks and she intends to tell it, for once.

Margaret Atwood and Sarah Polley on Alias Grace.