Screen Test

Murderess or innocent housemaid?

Alias Grace is inspired by real events of a maid and stable hand who were convicted of double murder

The best thing on American television this year was arguably The Handmaid's Tale, the Emmy-winning series that imagines the United States being taken over by a theocratic government that disenfranchises and enslaves all women and forces them to procreate.

The series has not aired in Singapore yet, but the next best thing for now might be Alias Grace which, like The Handmaid's Tale, is based on an award-winning novel by Margaret Atwood.

Atwood's trenchant depictions of patriarchy and social injustice feel suddenly and chillingly relevant after the election of President Donald Trump and a swing to the right in American politics.

It is a political climate that has galvanised swathes of women, perhaps even contributing to the recent post-Harvey Weinstein reckoning on sexual harassment - all of which makes Atwood's stories reverberate even more strongly today.

Alias Grace is not quite as pointed with its politics as The Handmaid's Tale, but no less subtle and thought-provoking.

Inspired by real events, it tells the story of Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a dirt-poor Irish immigrant who becomes a lowly housemaid in Canada in the 1800s.

When she is 16, she and stable hand James McDermott (Kerr Logan) are convicted of the 1843 double murder of their employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin).

Sarah Gadon is extraordinary as the chameleon-like Grace Marks, who seems at once naive and canny, calculating yet open-hearted, traditional but rebellious.
Sarah Gadon is extraordinary as the chameleon-like Grace Marks, who seems at once naive and canny, calculating yet open-hearted, traditional but rebellious. PHOTO: NETFLIX

McDermott is hanged, but Grace is sent to a mental asylum and then jail. Fifteen years on, she is still a cause celebre, and a church committee campaigning for her pardon and release engages a psychiatrist, Dr Simon Jordan (Edward Holcraft), to assess her so they can exonerate her.


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The problem is Grace claims to not remember much of what happened and, to jog her memory, Jordan prods her to talk at length about her sad, violent past, which has seen her repeatedly abused by those who have wielded power over her.

As the handsome young doctor tries to shrink her head, the viewer does too.

But even as Grace weaves a heart-rending tale about her miserable childhood and the heartbreaking loss of her only friend, both Jordan and the audience cannot help but wonder if she is a reliable narrator or if, like Scheherazade, she is just telling us what we want to hear.

Gadon is extraordinary as the chameleon-like Grace, who seems at once naive and canny, calculating yet open-hearted, traditional but rebellious.

While he battles his own romantic fantasies about her, Jordan must disentangle conflicting accounts of the murders, including Grace's own court testimony, which she says she was fed by her lawyer, and that of McDermott, who claims she was the mastermind.

There are periodic reminders of how women and other disadvantaged groups were - and continue to be - silenced, dismissed and, when it comes to sex or sexual transgressions, blamed.

And yet the story is clear-eyed enough to see how they try to make up for their lack of power through manipulations of their own - the way Jordan's landlady preys on his kindness when her husband abandons her, for instance, or how maids jockey for position in a household.

The writers channel Atwood's exquisite prose well with Grace's lyrical voice-over narration, in which she ruminates about everything from the unexpected joys of doing laundry to the rustling sound of the word "murderess".

A few points could be deducted for the dismount - the last of the six episodes is a little predictable and anticlimactic - but this unsettling show will haunt you for days. Chalk up another TV win for Atwood.

The new sitcom Great News hails from Tina Fey and some of the other comedy minds behind the cult comedy 30 Rock, so the setting - behind the scenes at a live TV show - feels somewhat familiar.

Aspiring cable-news reporter Katie (Briga Heelan) is having a hard time being taken seriously at work. But things get worse when her loving, but interfering, mother Carol (Andrea Martin) is hired as an intern at her newsroom.

Cue the generation-gap, fish-out-of-water and overbearing mum jokes which, coupled with the old-school comedic stylings of Martin, make the humour feel fairly broad.

A bit more edgy is the gentle sending up of 24-hour cable news and its inanities, as well as the insecurity-fuelled self-importance of the on-air talent.

It makes for easy, but also easily forgettable, watching. This is something you would have on in the background, just like cable news.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2017, with the headline 'Murderess or innocent housemaid?'. Print Edition | Subscribe