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Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks in Alias Grace (2017)

Later this year, a new television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace will air on the CBC (in Canada) and Netflix (internationally). Promo images were just released and it looks moody and gorgeous. The adaptation is directed by Sarah Polley from a script by Mary Haddon.

Atwood’s novel is based on the true story of Grace Marks, a housemaid who was convicted of colluding with the stable boy to murder both their employer as well as the housekeeper. Marks was sent to jail, while her co-accused, James McDermott, was hanged. It was a huge scandal in 19th century Canada, bringing up issues of class and gender, thoroughly explored in Atwood’s novel.

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Gadon as Grace Marks

The real Grace Marks was apparently quite beautiful, surely part of why her crime and trial attracted so much attention. She was also seemingly mild-mannered and polite, and was eventually released from prison for good behaviour. In Atwood’s novel, she claims to have forgotten the events of the day her employer and colleague were murdered, lending the proceedings an air of murder mystery.

Because this is a thoroughly Canadian production, the victims are played by Paul Gross (as her employer, Thomas Kinnear) and Anna Paquin (as the housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery). Love to see Paquin in a costume similar to that of her debut performance as a child in The Piano.

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Anna Paquin as Nancy Montgomery

The Atwood novel, and presumably this series, questions how much Grace was led by James McDermott to commit the murders — or whether she engineered things, manipulating him. Kerr Logan plays James, which is notably to me personally because I just learned today Logan will be playing the odious fiance Matthew in the upcoming Cormoran Strike series on HBO/BBC.

The concept of this story is not just to tell the story of this crime and trial, but to explore all the issues that the case brought up: class, politics, gender, the role of women in society, colonialism, sex, violence. Many of the same themes now being explored in the popular TV adaptation of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are also brought to light in this historical fiction, with Grace Marks’s story underpinning a wider discussion of society.

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Kerr Logan as James McDermott

Needless to say, I’m super excited for this to air. The timing seems perfect, with Atwood so in the zeitgeist with The Handmaid’s Tale. It will be interesting to see if sales of Alias Grace will soar as well with this adaptation, and I wonder if this will bring adaptations of other seminal Atwood titles like The Edible Woman or The Blind Assassin. If we’re in the midst of an Atwood-aissance, that is unexpected and delightful, and I am all for it.

As a Canadian, it’s great to see a production of this calibre coming out and featuring Canadian talent both on- and off-screen, and furthermore to have this project written and directed by women. Interestingly, costume drama merged with true crime is also having a moment with this weekend’s North American premiere of the film Dark Angel, starring Joanne Froggett as the notorious British serial killer Mary Ann Cotton. Not having seen that yet either, I’m guessing many of the same issues as Alias Grace may be touched upon — the dissonance of female stereotypes with the grisliness of Marks’s and Cotton’s murders, particularly with both women serving in traditionally nurturing roles as a maid and nurse, respectively.

 

Alias Grace will premiere on CBC in Canada on September 25th, 2017. It will also air on Netflix in the U.S. later this fall. If you can’t wait to dive into the story, the original novel is available everywhere.

Dark Angel premieres this Sunday, May 26th, on PBS in the United States. A DVD of the film will be released on May 23rd, 2017.

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