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Murderess… Netflix’s Alias Grace series

‘All the same, Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word— musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor. Murderer is merely brutal. It’s like a hammer, or a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.’ Quote from the novel, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood.

Alias Grace review

Alias Grace is a six part Netflix series adapted from Margaret Atwood’s (one of my favourite authors, who also penned such game changers as The Handmaid’s Tale) bestselling novel. Atwood previously wrote about Miss Marks in her 1970s play The Servant Girl. What’s intriguing is that it’s based on the 1843 true story of Grace Marks and Jason McDermott. Written for the screen by award winning screenwriter, Sarah Polley, who is reported to have spent a couple of decades— first approaching Atwood at age seventeen— trying to bring Alias Grace to life. ‘People know they need to look brutally and honestly at the world,’ Polley says about the appeal of Atwood’s work.

The series, starring Sarah Gadon, is a well constructed and haunting story. It details the murder of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery by Marks and McDermott. It has been a popular watch. After only a few weeks on Netflix and Rolling Stone dubbed it ‘…the most relevant show on television.’

Author of Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

Atwood, who is a celebrated feminist writer, highlighted throughout the novel the differences in the way female and male murders are treated. And how they are perceived and regarded by society (then and now). And, of course, takes an intimate look at The Woman Question

Atwood has stated about the protagonist and real life Grace ‘…The interesting thing is the way everybody projects their ideas onto Grace.’

Leaves us questioning (as many of the characters are also) is she a victim of the situation and ‘… a good girl with a pliable nature…’ [page 25] (and trying to make the best of) or is she a cold blooded murderer and ‘…cunning and devious…’ [page 25]. It also highlights how a murder is not in and of itself. That people, especially women, are three dimensional, even if they commit what are considered to be evil acts. 

Atwood said in this interview with her publisher, Penguin Randomhouse: ‘Other people took the view that women, when they got going, were inherently more evil than men, and that it was therefore Grace who had instigated the crime and led McDermott on. So you had a real split between woman as demon and woman as pathetic.’

Who will like Alias Grace?

It holds something for most audience members. It comprises history, feminist overtones, mental health, supernatural, domesticity (specifically quilting is used as a prominent leitmotif) and— of course— romance. And whilst it may be historical, the themes and concerns are just as present today. Solidifying the necessity to storytell and excavate these themes until the light that touches them to perpetrate radical change. Building on the increasing popularity of flawed female characters and unreliable narrators that we are equally harrowed by and empathetic towards. In the vein of Gone Girl, Girl on a Train, Fates and Furies and Jessica Jones. We are now embracing the idea the women are more multifaceted and whole than they have ever been depicted and that even the most determined murderess still has the capacity to love, feel empathy, create long lasting and meaningful friendships.

Additionally I found the recent series of The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace both pleasingly true to the novels. The details, the same mysterious atmosphere, ambiguous ending and pertinent premises come across exactly as I anticipated.

Alias Grace is an easier watch that the harrowing The Handmaid’s Tale. And whilst it will question your sensitivities and will haunt you for at least a week afterwards, it will not leave you in terror like The Handmaid’s Tale. Knowing it’s in the past and not a probable speculative fictional future.  

What’s more, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for a cameo appearance by Margaret Atwood herself.

You’ll love Alias Grace if you liked…

Making a Murderer
The Handmaid’s Tale
The Sinner
Top of the Lake

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