Considering the critical acclaim the Margaret Atwood book this miniseries is based on received, it was always going to be tough to live up to those expectations. Even more so considering the previous effort, The Handmaid’s Tale, won multiple awards and was an overwhelming success. Alias Grace features a deeply troubled, character driven story at the heart of this period drama. A layered plot featuring flashbacks, a well written, poetic script oozing class, effortless editing and an award winning performance from Grace (Sarah Gadon) help elevate Alias Grace to being one of the year’s best historical dramas.
The story begins in 19th Century Canada, where psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) weighs in on whether murderess Grace should be pardoned due to insanity. Based on a true story, the plot is told through a series of face to face discussions between Dr Jordan and Grace, recounting her troubled life and the adversity she had to endure leading up to the murders she stands accused of committing that led to her arrest and years in prison. Despite the slow pace the episodes take, there’s a hypnotic rhythm to the show that sucks you in and grips from the very start through to the chilling finale. There are certainly elements of horror woven into the plot too and the authenticity given to the time period, right down to the dialogue and mannerisms, really helps elevate the show, giving it a much needed air of believability.
The acting from all involved is very good too. Dr Jordan’s internal conflictions are perfectly illustrated by his mannerisms and rare bursts of impatience juxtapose nicely with Grace’s calmness. The rest of the supporting cast do a great job but its ultimately Grace who captivates and frightens in equal doses. Its an extraordinary performance too; frequent glances into mirrors or the camera tightrope between insanity and innocence, rage and fear. It really is spine chilling stuff at times and the nuanced expressions told predominantly through the eyes change in an instant. The underlying feeling of uneasiness that something isn’t quite right or the whole truth isn’t being spoken really helps sell her character and makes it all the more difficult to watch given that for vast periods of the show her mannerisms and pleasantries make her a really likeable character.
Its hard to find faults with Alias Grace but with many period dramas, those going into this expecting something action orientated or fast paced will be left disappointed. This is a methodically paced, systematic drama featuring slick technicality and a very well written script. What it lacks in action and big set pieces, it makes up for with its characters and plot. The beginning of each episode features a short statement from brilliant minds of the time and the inclusion of Emily Dickinson is certainly an interesting one, given her damaged mental state does bear some similarities with Grace. The costumes and set design manage to make the setting of 19th century Canada all the more believable too; the minimalist musical score helps sell the dialogue which oozes a poetic charm with every word.
The cleverly written script complements the incredible performance from Grace and although the other actors do a great job of portraying their characters, they’re unintentionally overshadowed by Grace. As the series progresses and the past story looks to reveal what happened the night of the murders, the pace does quicken slightly for a gripping finale that encapsulates the mood of the series perfectly. You’re never quite sure of Grace, right down to the final frame. Unlike Grace’s mental state, which remains a bit of a mystery, Alias Grace certainly is not. Its one of the best period dramas, if not the best drama released this year and deserves to be watched.
Verdict - 9.5/10