Sarah Gadon’s mesmerizing performance defines and elevates “Alias Grace,” a six-episode Netflix miniseries based on Margaret Atwood’s historical novel. Slow at first, the understated project gains momentum behind its central mystery, as well as Gadon’s star-making turn as the 19th-century heroine, which suggests her name should be much better known once people get through bingeing it.
While Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” explored the societal plight of women through a dystopian future, “Alias Grace” probes similar terrain by examining the past – specifically, a true story about a salacious crime, set in the wilds of Canada in the 1840s.
An unreliable narrator of her own tale, Grace – an Irish immigrant who becomes a housemaid – has been convicted of murdering her well-to-do employer and his housekeeper (the latter played by “True Blood’s” Anna Paquin). While the stable boy (Kerr Logan) also involved in the slayings has been executed, Grace’s life was spared, though she remains a source of curiosity as she serves her life sentence.
Enter Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), a doctor who becomes fascinated with Grace’s case, and, through a series of conversations, seeks to pull the truth out of her. Yet as she impassively recounts her star-crossed history, Grace’s version of events complicates Holcroft’s attempts to help her.
Having bounced around for years as a possible feature, “Alias Grace” proves better suited to this more expansive and leisurely adaptation, written and directed by actress Sarah Polley and Mary Harron, respectively, and impeccably adorned in the mud-spattered trappings of the times. (Gadon, a Canadian, previously appeared in the Hulu miniseries “11.22.63.”)
Zachary Levi and director David Cronenberg are among those featured in the cast, but this is Gadon’s show from start to finish, as Grace details her experiences and indignities – inflicted through Victorian-era sexism and classism – with a kind of hypnotic, out-of-body calm, stoking suspicion as to what secrets she’s harboring.
“If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged,” Grace tells the doctor at one point.
Grace’s thoughts remain tantalizingly impenetrable for much of “Alias Grace,” which doesn’t prevent this latest adaptation based on Atwood’s work from meriting a highly favorable verdict.
“Alias Grace” premieres Nov. 3 on Netflix.