Churchill’s saying about a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma? He could have been talking about Grace Marks, the woman at the centre of Alias Grace.
There’s a lot bubbling under the surface in the new CBC-TV and Netflix miniseries adapted from Margaret Atwood’s award-winning novel, inspired by the true story of Grace Marks, a poor Irish immigrant and domestic servant accused and convicted of murder in 19th century Canada.
Central to the six-part miniseries is the question: Just who is Grace Marks?
“You’re playing a real person, but then you’re playing everybody else’s idea of her, so that’s where it becomes complicated,” said Toronto actress Sarah Gadon, who stars as Grace and has called it the most challenging role of her career.
Murderer or pawn? Bystander or liar?
The uncertainty surrounding the character explores “the idea of having an identity projected onto you versus how you feel yourself, and grappling with that discrepancy [of] being who you are and feeling who are and trying to rise to the expectations of what people want you to be,” Gadon told CBC News in a recent interview.
Complex stories about women
The limited series — the initial episodes of which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival — comes on the heels of another high-profile Atwood adaptation: Hulu’s successful The Handmaid’s Tale, which has earned critical acclaim, earned a raft of Emmy Awards last weekend and has begun shooting a second season.
Both productions are earning praise for their provocative, complex female-centred stories and, though set in earlier time periods, sparking timely discussion about issues such as women’s rights, class, the treatment of immigrants, sexism and violence.
For instance, Grace Marks was part of a colonial class system in Toronto where “she did not have the privilege to express herself,” noted Gadon.
“All of that tension, all of that anger, that injustice, starts to bubble beneath her as she tries to suppress it. That’s what makes the character so interesting: that she might be on a surface level a young girl and a servant, but underneath is turmoil.”
Gadon champions the fact that Alias Grace is a production led by a team of celebrated, female Canadian filmmakers: Atwood’s novel was adapted by Sarah Polley, directed by Mary Harron and produced by Noreen Halpern.
“It was incredible to work with such a powerhouse group of women,” Gadon said.
“They’re all intelligent and were perfect for what the material was calling for.”
Alias Grace premieres Monday on CBC-TV and will be streamed around the globe via Netflix on Nov. 3.