Thursday 23 November 2017

Alias Grace

Instead of a proper review of Sarah Polley's excellent adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel, something different here. I think the story of Alias Grace is haunting in any case, it leaves it entirely open whether the reader wishes to see it as a ghost story, a crime thriller or a rousing tract on the horrifying consequences of a society that allows women that little room to grow and develop, but what makes Alias Grace into a story that I could revisit again and again is the central friendship between Grace Marks and Mary Whitney. This is quite remarkable, as the actual friendship only takes up a few pages in the book and a bit more than one episode, including the flashbacks later on, in the television series. If anything, one of the most outstanding achievements of the already very accomplished adaptation is that Sarah Gadon as Grace and Rebecca Liddiard as Mary Whitney give so much live to the few chapters in the novel in which Mary appears in the flesh, rather than as a spectre. 
ONE need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place. 
Emily Dickinson
Consider the framing of this story: Dr. Jordan (Edward Holcroft, on screen), an early psychiatrist, attempts to prove his theories about the subconscious and memory by interrogating Grace Marks, a woman who, fifteen years ago, was convicted for killing her employer and his housekeeper. The past unfolds as Grace chooses to tell it, as any attempt by Dr. Jordan to prompt her with props fails. If anything, Grace's story is sheer assertion of her own individuality: she writes this story (to the extent that Dr. Jordan often wonders how much she edits, how much of it is told with an audience in mind), and she chooses to withhold information from him whenever she sees fit. This is remarkable considering her own life story: fleeing her father's debts and questionable past on a ship from Ireland to Canada, setting up a new life, escaping into service from a man on the verge of sexually abusing her. 

At its foundation, Alias Grace is the story of a society that gives very limited powers to young women, particularly young women who are poor, and the ways in which Grace Marks specifically navigates that terrain. It should seem horrifying that a fourteen year old girl becomes a servant to a wealthy Canadian family, and yet that situation, for a while, is more safe for her than her home life is (after her mother's death on the ship to the Colonies, after her father has started to use her as a replacement, after she struggles to make ends meet with a man who drinks everything away and takes little care of his own children). After a dreadful journey across the ocean to a new continent, the moment when Grace first meets Mary Whitney is a revelation. This is true for both the novel and the series: it's like Mary Whitney brings pure light and joy into Grace's life, changing a story that was about suffering and loss into one that includes discussing politics, not showing any misplaced respect for upper classes, and dreaming about an independent future. Mary Whitney is like an escape hatch in Alias Grace, and when she dies, any joy that was contained within the story dies with her. 

This is the pivotal moment in the narrative. Grace learned how to read from Mary, she learned Mary's political views on class and the situation of women (both, endlessly quotable) from her: so when she dies, tragically after an unsafe abortion, Grace is left alone in this world. It's a turning point specifically because Margaret Atwood leaves the interpretation of what happens later on to the reader. Dr. Jordan is asked to examine Grace so that she may earn a pardon, to prove that she has no recollection of the murders, and is therefore not guilty of them, and in the process of their interviews, of Grace telling her story, his version of her becomes skewed. He interprets her, and in the process, puts all of his expectations that he has of a woman that he is attracted to in her. Once he starts daydreaming about her - about a relationship with her - any scientific motivation that he may have int his process becomes questionable. And the perfect twist is that Grace is very conscious of that process: she knows that she is performing for him, creating a version of herself for him. 

Because Grace is the one who is telling the story, and telling it so vividly, with so much detail, only veering from this course once she gets to the murders, any interpretation of what happens becomes possible. Dr. Jordan may be judging whether or not she is a murderess, whether she killed Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear out of low motives, whether she was promising herself to James McDermott in exchange for him killing them for her - but in the background of all of this, like a red thread, runs the idea of a supernatural occurrence. It starts on the ship, with the traumatic death of her mother, when another passenger tells her that her mother's soul would be trapped on the ship unless she opens a window to allow it to escape. This runs to Mary Whitney's death - which occurs overnight, next to Grace - and heightens in a moment when Grace believes that Mary's soul asks her to "let her in". She thinks that she has misheard, that the soul is asking her to open a window so it can escape, but the moment is followed by hours of amnesia in which someone awakens in Grace's body, looking for her. It's the perfect set-up for later on, when former friend and peddler Jeremiah (Zachary Levi) reappears as a hypnotist, and to Dr. Jordan's horror undermines his entire undertaking when he demonstrates that Grace is in fact possessed by the vengeful ghost of Mary Whitney, who in death even more than in life strives to make the upper classes pay for making poor people's, and even more so, poor women's - lives unbearable. 

This is what it all comes down to, if the viewer believes that Grace Marks is possessed by the ghost of Mary Whitney because she failed to open the window in time, if Mary Whitney has returned, with all of her rhetoric turned into actual violence, to take revenge upon those she believes have wronged her. Grace knows - even though it is never made explicit - that one of the sons of hers and Mary's employers has impregnated her, and then refused to bear the responsibility. 

But what if it doesn't even matter if what occurs is supernatural, or psychological? What if it doesn't matter if the literal ghost of Mary Whitney has returned, like the Emily Dickinson poem that prefaces this whole story (in the series), to haunt this society like a superior spectre, like a whiter host? It could as well be that this is Grace, taking bloody revenge for the loss of her one true friend, a woman who is utterly irreplaceable both in her life and in this story, so much so that her absence is felt like a black hole throughout? Perhaps it does not matter so much if Anna Paquin's Nancy dies because Mary Whitney has peculiar ideas about class and feminism or because she wrongs Grace herself, because the only thing that does matter in all of this is their devotion to each other, and the utter destruction that Mary Whitney's death brings to Grace's life? I personally would love to read this is a revenge fantasy of Grace eloquently realising the politics that her best friend preached when she was still alive - class war - utilising perfectly everything that she ever taught her about men and their preconceptions about women. 

I'll go further than that and argue that Alias Grace is a love story, and rather than being about how Grace will eventually reunite with Jamie, and negotiate his betrayal of her, enjoying a simple life of independence, it's the love story of Grace taking bloody revenge for the violence that costs Mary Whitney's life. She revenges her in killing a woman who is seeking to destroy the essence of her, and a man who takes the same liberties, with the same lack of consequences, that the man who betrayed Mary Whitney did. She wins, in the end, because she has learned how to play the game: how to become exactly the woman that Dr. Jordan wishes her to be, as innocent as a dove, in spite of Jeremiah's revelation about her depths. In the end, she stitches her own quilts, and lives her own, quiet life, the same life that Mary Whitney always wanted. In fact, she dedicates her entire life to Mary Whitney's dream, even naming her pets after what Mary Whitney would have named hers, had she lived. Her life is a glorious, bloody tribute to her best friend. 

2017, written by Margaret Atwood and Sarah Polley, directed by Mary Harron, starring Sarah Gadon, Rebecca Liddiard, Edward Holcroft, Zachary Levi, Kerr Logan, David Cronenberg, Paul Gross, Anna Paquin, Stephen Joffe.

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