Netflix has really been knocking it out of the park with their original series this past year. From MINDHUNTER and The OA, to the arrival of Riverdale and Dynasty, the streaming service continues to provide UK viewers with top notch entertainment. Hot off the release of the highly anticipated second season of Stranger Things, Netflix have added yet another sensational original series to their line-up, and this time it’s a story from the mind of author Margaret Atwood. Alias Grace, which arrived on Netflix this past Friday, tells the story of a 19th century Irish-Canadian woman, Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), who is serving a prison sentence for murder, but in a world full of patriarchy and oppression, it quickly becomes clear that there is more to Grace’s story than meets the eye.
Atwood’s body of work is hot property in Hollywood right now after the unprecedented success of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, so Alias Gracewill no doubt be must-see television for many avid viewers. But does this adaptation of Atwood’s work live up to The Handmaid’s Tale? That’s a tough one and I’m inclined to say that it both does and doesn’t. Thematically yes, Alias Grace is every bit as good as The Handmaid’s Tale. A dystopian future was the setting for The Handmaid’s Tale; a future where women are, for lack of a better expression, put in their place and oppressed by a male dominated society. Alias Grace, despite being a period piece, shares a similar premise. The Netflix series reflects the times and attitudes of the 19th Century, but its staggering portrayal of a woman’s place in society is equally as haunting as it is in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Of course, one of the reasons that The Handmaid’s Tale was met with such acclaim is because its themes are more relevant than ever in today’s world, and Alias Grace is very similar in that respect. Women had no power in the 19th Century and this does allow us to connect with Grace, because no one listens to her. However, I’d argue that the story of The Handmaid’s Tale has an advantage because, in that world, women once had power and equality and it was taken away from them, giving them something to fight for. In Alias Grace, Grace has never known any other life; she has always been oppressed and, as a result, she thinks that all hope is lost, which gives her less to fight for.
Much like The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace uses the voiceover technique and I think it’s a pretty clever device to use, because as women had no voice at the time, Alias Grace gives our protagonist the voice that she so desperately craves. No-one will listen to her so we, the viewers, must. Voiceover is often dismissed in modern television because, for screenwriters, it makes relaying information to the audience a lot easier. There’s no need for subtext or story build-up because we are given our protagonist’s thoughts and feelings immediately. However, there are some cases, like Alias Grace, that such a technique adds to the narrative and makes the piece much stronger. For example, the voiceover may give us an insight into Grace’s thoughts but it also tells us that she is completely unreliable as a narrator.
I’m not usually a fan of shows jumping back and forth between timelines, but I can see why such a storytelling method could benefit this narrative. Additionally, Grace’s meetings with Doctor Jordan (Edward Holcroft) are a very clever way of obtaining information from her without it coming across like unnecessary exposition. The six-part drama is exceptionally well put together; everything from the sets to the costumes and even the CGI used to re-create the 19th century backdrops — it’s all great. There’s no denying that Alias Grace is pleasing to the eye and I’d recommend viewing it in high definition on the biggest screen you can find because, visually, the show is stunning.
Alias Grace is a lovely six-part series about a woman who finds herself in an unfortunate situation and, in the end, it was society that let her down. In a way, we, the viewers, are the jury that Grace needs and we must determine her innocence or guilt and, because the writing is so strong, it’s incredibly difficult to do so. The only complaint I have about the show is that the ending felt a little rushed. As I haven’t read Atwood’s book I can’t compare it to her ending, but for me it felt like there wasn’t enough time to finish the narrative out properly so the last twenty minutes try to squeeze a lot in. Additionally, I worked out the twist about halfway through the third episode. Whether or not this was writer Sarah Polley’s intention I don’t know, but I would’ve liked to have been a little more shocked by the revelation when it eventually comes out in the final episode.
While not as compelling as The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace is great TV viewing. I myself watched the whole series in two sittings and let me tell you, my finger was on the ‘next episode’ button the whole way through. Alias Grace is perhaps something akin to Sunday night British dramas and if you’re a fan of Downton Abbey or PBS’ Mercy Street, then you’ll be hooked. While it likely won’t reach the heights of The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace is another hit for Netflix, and a wonderful performance from Sarah Gadon makes this Margaret Atwood-inspired show a wonderful addition to the streaming service’s original series line up.
Contributed by Stephen Patterson
Alias Grace is now streaming on Netflix.