Recommended Reading

ALIAS GRACE, Review by Lynn Wenzel

If you were a wealthy, upper-class woman in the 19th century, your life might be somewhat safe; that is, if you didn’t contract a fatal illness or die in childbirth, scenarios that were all too common. But if you were a woman of the lower-middle or working class, your life hung by a thread—every single day.

Such is the grim fate of the subject of the six-part film, Alias Grace, now streaming on Netflix. Grace Marks (played by Sarah Gadon) is a devastatingly poor immigrant from Ireland who sails to Canada with her parents and younger brothers and sisters. Tragedy strikes on board the ship and once they land, the little family is reduced to living in a hovel. As her brutish father drinks his life away, 16-year-old Grace is forced to find work as a servant to support her brothers and sisters.

Grace’s first job reduces her to a slavey; she spends most of her time on her knees cleaning out the firebox, scrubbing floors, emptying slop jars and helping the cooks in the kitchen. Yet, there is redemption, for it is here she makes her only real friend, the delightful and irrepressible Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard). It is from Mary that she hears about political action and the hoped-for rise of the servant class. But Mary becomes the unfortunate target of her employer’s lust and Grace is soon forced into another (and final) position.

The entire film is told in a flashback narrative, opening in 1859 in Victorian Canada, where Grace has been imprisoned for 15 years for the murder of her former employer (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, (played with wolfish slyness by Anna Paquin). As Grace relates her life story for psychologist, Dr. Simon Jordan, (Edward Holcroft) who has been ordered by paternalistic benefactors to find a reason to free her, we are kept in the dark about whether or not she has actually committed the murder, though it seems clear it was probably the crude stable hand (Kerr Logan) who lusts after Grace and hates Nancy.

Grace’s years in prison are horrific, full of physical and emotional torture, and though Dr. Jordan is kind and the sessions take place in a wealthy home, Grace is brutally dragged back to her cell every night where she sits in dark silence attending to her small needlework. We are not sure if Grace can tell that Dr. Jordan is falling in love with her, but we watch him become ever more obsessed as the tale unfolds and he wonders how this gentle, pretty woman could truly be a murderess?

No spoiler alerts here, so the rest of the story will have to remain a surprise. The ending is a doozy, not entirely unexpected, chilling but, ultimately. uplifting. Except for the date and the setting, this story is relevant today, as I’m sure Margaret Atwood, the author of the book on which it is based, intended. As Grace’s story (based on a real historical event) unfolds, we are constantly reminded of how patriarchy pits women against their own gender, about how men abuse their power, and about how class informs everything. As I watched this, I felt such gratitude that we have birth control and safe, legal abortion, even though, 159 years later, powerful men are attempting to turn the clock back to Grace’s time, when women had no agency over their lives at all. Some things still haven’t changed.

Don’t miss this thought-provoking, touching and powerful film.

 

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