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Review: ‘Alias Grace’ a spellbinding tale of true crime and quiltmaking

By Chelsea Tatham
Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks in Alias Grace on Netflix.

Grace Marks would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if given the choice between the two.

The elusive and mysterious term is a fitting description of the title character in Netflix's new series Alias Grace.

Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) is a young Irish immigrant imprisoned at 16 for the murders of her employer and his housekeeper in northern Canada. She was put through a grueling trial, imprisoned in an insane asylum and now serves a life sentence for crimes she can't seem to remember.

The overarching story is a tale of true crime, which The Handmaid's Tale author Margaret Atwood used as inspiration for her novel of the same name. The real Grace Marks was indeed tried and found guilty of murder in 1843, but after 30 years of incarceration she was released and moved to New York.

Review: Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale poignantly adapts Margaret Atwood's novel

After that, there is no record of what she did with the rest of her life.

Grace's imprisonment was a controversial one, with many questioning whether she actually did commit the murders or was an unwitting accessory to stable hand James McDermott (Kerr Logan), who was hanged for the murders.

That's where the Netflix series drops us — a dozen years or so after Grace's trial. She's now in her early 30s and spends her days away from her cell cleaning a wealthy family's home. When Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) shows up at the request of people campaigning for Grace's release, we get to hear her tell her own story.

The details of what exactly happened to Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin) can't be summarized because questions still remain to this day about Grace's involvement. But the mini-series presents a patchwork story, from her cruel voyage to Canada from Ireland to her life as a poor Irish immigrant earning a living as a housemaid to wealthy families.

Gadon's Grace is a master storyteller and an unreliable narrator. She pieces together her life's story in Canada to an enraptured Dr. Jordan. The mishmash narrative is smartly deliberate, because throughout the series and the book, Grace is sewing quilts.

For Grace, opening up to Dr. Jordan is "… a feeling of being torn open; not like a body of flesh, it is not painful as such. But like a peach; and not even torn open, but to ripe and splitting open of its own accord. And inside the peach…there's a stone."

Alias Grace is a remarkably complex portrait of a young servant girl who eventually becomes a "celebrated murderess." The series quickly becomes more of an attempt to understand Grace beyond her titles of maid and murderess.

Sure, the crime she supposedly committed is a fascinating one, as is the thought of never truly knowing if she did it. But Grace reels you into her story through its ambiguity and breadcrumb teases. The series takes a shot at understanding her, but by the end you'll likely be left with more questions than answers.
Contact Chelsea Tatham at [email protected] Follow @chelseatatham.
Watch

Alias Grace

3 a.m. Friday, Netflix

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