A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Alias Grace is a dark drama that centers on the story of a real woman who was convicted of two brutal murders as a young girl (the title comes from Margaret Atwood's same-named book about her). The show's violence isn't particularly gory, but it can be disturbing: An abusive, alcoholic father slaps his wife and throws his daughter up against a wall, knocking her unconscious; while she's in bed recovering, he kisses her inappropriately. He also calls her names like "filthy slut" and "ugly whore." Viewers see many flashbacks to the murder that Grace (Sarah Gadon) is jailed for: a woman falling through a trapdoor, gasping for breath as she's choked; a blade cutting through flesh and bone. Grace's mother dies when her daughter is beside her in bed; her dead body is shown then and as it's buried at sea. A woman is held in an asylum and refers to "liberties" taken; viewers see men pushing her and pinning her to the ground. Nude buttocks are briefly seen when someone uses a chamber pot. Viewers may come away from watching curious about many of the historical details and may be inspired to learn about the real Grace Marks and about how women, particularly poor immigrants, were treated in mid-19th-century Canada.
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What's the story?
The bare bones of ALIAS GRACE's ripped-from-the-19th-century-headlines story are true: Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) was a young Irish immigrant and maid who was convicted of murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin), with stable hand James McDermott (Kerr Logan). James was hanged; Grace received a life sentence but was exonerated for the crime after spending 30 years in jail. In this drama based on the Margaret Atwood book of the same name, we focus in on Grace's imagined world, and the real-life history of a notorious woman at a time when being a woman, particularly a poor one, was a deadly condition on its own.
Is it any good?
There are no red robes and white caps in this stark, mesmerizing drama, but one central fact makes it as compelling as that other Atwood adaptation: It's a true story. Well, the outline of the story is true, anyway, though we have no way of knowing if the real woman bubbled with curious thoughts, or understood that her imprisonment was as much about political and social forces as it was about vintage law enforcement. But as the show takes form, with Grace relating her life's story to a sympathetic, quickly pixilated psychiatrist (Edward Holcroft), we quickly realize that Grace is as stuck in her circumstances as Offred; her life is just as harrowing.
The visuals aren't as striking as those in The Handmaid's Tale; everything seems just a little quieter and more muted. Grace's internal monologue is delivered in a singsongy lilt; everyone's clad in shades of oatmeal and gray; there are no sudden and shocking revelations (just numbingly familiar depictions of a powerless woman in the grip of circumstance). Still, it's lovely. One particular distinct pleasure of this show is that it lifts entire passages of Atwood's beautiful writing and makes them come to life in lengthy monologues of Grace's thoughts that we hear as she's impassively polishing tables or straightening beds. "'Murderess' is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word -- musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: 'Murderess, Murderess.' It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor." Atwood fans and others will fall under Alias Grace's spell.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the historical setting of Alias Grace. Was Grace's personal history a common one? Did the things that happened to her happen to real people? What privileges and power do women have now that they didn't when Grace was alive?
If you've read the book the movie is based on, how does it compare? What's the same? What was changed? Many people say "the book is always better." Is it true in this case?
This drama was produced and written by an all-female team. Does this surprise you? Do you think women can make better dramas about women? Are they likelier to feature female characters as the protagonist?
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