Some of the finest movies and TV shows are, ultimately, about the act of storytelling. They have plots and subplots, of course — and in the case of the hypnotic new Netflix miniseries “Alias Grace,” the plot involves a woman imprisoned at age 16 for a double murder in 1843 Canada. But the dependability of the person or people telling the story — the motives behind the facts they choose to relate, the plot twists they stress to support their cause, the lies they tell to evoke sympathy — can create the drama as much as anything else.
The information we get in “Alias Grace,” which is adapted from the fact-based 1996 novel by Margaret Atwood, is from Grace Marks, the maid who has been found guilty of killing her master and his housekeeper and has become a “celebrated murderess.” The miniseries is set 15 years after the murders, as prisoner Grace, played with great ambiguity and persuasion by Sarah Gadon, tells her story to Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), an early therapist hired by wealthy Methodists eager to see Grace pardoned. As the gentlemanly Jordan sits listening and taking notes, Grace quilts and talks — at first reticently, but more willingly with each subsequent meeting. Her descriptive abilities are remarkable and natural, as she compares herself to a ripe peach “splitting open of its own accord” when she talks to him. Her sermon on the importance of beds in the first episode is magical.
The history Grace recalls is epic, a Dickensian tale of class oppression, sexism, and a twisted penal system in the 19th century. After a poor childhood in Ireland, her father takes her, her siblings, and her weak mother on a grueling voyage to Canada, where they marinade for weeks in the bodily fluids and the stink of the cargo hold. Once they land — the mother having died mid-trip — her abusive father forces Grace to leave home, find a job, and send money back, which he will undoubtedly spend on booze. So begins her life as a wage earner, and as an immigrant girl free to be debased by a host of social injustices.
I won’t spoil the story Grace tells, which accumulates elegantly and with more and more mystery as she speaks both directly to the doctor and in voice-over of letters she has written. The truth gets muddier, as it is wont to do. The danger that “Alias Grace” might be too talky is allayed, partly by the camera work — anyone who has seen “In Treatment” knows that therapy can be visually dynamic when handled properly — and mostly by Gadon’s performance. On one level, Gadon makes Grace into a cypher, beaten down into empty passivity; on another level, she gives us a very smart woman who has kept her emotions secretly alive, the epitome of a survivor. Is Grace creating or recounting her own reality, is she consciously working on the doctor’s psyche, is she a victim or a weasel? Gadon gives a fascinating riddle of a performance. Most of the actors around Gadon are fine, but they all pale beside her.
“Alias Grace” is the second Atwood adaptation this year, and there are some clear thematic parallels between it and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” including female servitude. But the two projects are different in more ways than they’re alike. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a dystopian story that takes issues to an extreme, dropping us into a nightmare world of cruelty and stunningly original visuals. It’s all about triggering outrage at the way women are treated. “Alias Grace,” written by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron, is a quieter piece of historical fiction. It raises difficult questions and inspires thought, as the patient doctor — and we — look and listen for the ever-evasive truth.
Starring: Sarah Gadon, Anna Paquin, Zachary Levi, Edward Holcroft, Paul Gross, Kerr Logan.
All six episodes available Friday on Netfix.