Based on the 1996 novel by Margaret Atwood, who is already having a major small-screen triumph thanks to Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale," the six-part Netflix series "Alias Grace" gives viewers a starkly compelling reason to forget about 21st-century gender nightmares for a while, and to focus instead on the worst the 19th century had to offer women.
The limited series comes from many hands, but especially those of Toronto-born producer and screenwriter Sarah Polley, who has done a first-rate job with the 1843-set story of Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), convicted for the murders of her employer and his mistress. By probing Marks' "subliminated dreams and memories," an idealistic young doctor (Edward Holcroft) specializing in the newfangled realm of mental illness treatment conducts a series of interviews. Flashbacks to Marks' earlier years as an Irish immigrant new to Canada reveal the travails of Grace, and the conspiring details of a society no fairer to women than the one in the retro-futurist "Handmaid's Tale." Directed by Mary Harron ("American Psycho," "The Moth Diaries") and based on true events, "Alias Grace" is the "Handmaid's" bookend. The future, both of Atwood's novels argue, came from somewhere.
Best known as an actress, Polley has made three directorial features to date, two fiction ("Away From Her" and "Take This Waltz") and one remarkable personal documentary ("Stories We Tell"). These point to a long, hardy career ahead, building on everything Polley learned as a versatile and respected actress. But that word "respected" carries an asterisk for Polley, as it does with virtually everybody who is not white and male in the film and TV industries.
Last month Polley published a New York Times op-ed on her own experiences with producer Harvey Weinstein, The disgraced mogul, she wrote, "may be the central-casting version of a Hollywood predator, but he was just one festering pustule in a diseased industry. The only thing that shocked most people in the film industry about the Harvey Weinstein story was that suddenly, for some reason, people seemed to care. That knowledge alone allowed a lot of us to breathe for the first time in ages."
Below, some excerpts from a recent phone interview, with Polley on the line from Toronto.
Adaptation: Originally Polley conceived of a conventional two-hour screen version of "Alias Grace." "That would've taken out most of the historical context, and almost all the political context and the real texture of Grace's world. When I first started writing this and realized it could and should be a miniseries, I remember talking to my agents, and they said: 'If this were an ongoing series, we'd have, like, 80 places to pitch it. But people aren't making limited series right now. It's not a thing.' And I thought, 'I'll just write it that way anyway.' And within a year, when we'd started trying to raise money, suddenly everyone was making limited series."
The late-Weinstein era: "My last couple of acting experiences, a few years ago now, were marked by extreme insensitivity either on the part of the producer or the director. And I remember saying to myself: 'I'm going to come back to this when I'm 50, when nobody cares anymore about me being a sexual object.' But of course there are no parts for women in their 50s ...
"It's not just the film industry. Women are dealing with harassment or worse every day, in every aspect of their lives. This is so ingrained in our culture. What's new is people are having conversations about it, and they seem to care. They're not as dismissive of these women. I remember when I was a kid, the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas conversation was everywhere, and the conversation around me as a child was that this lady was a wingnut, and sexual harassment was not a real thing. That was the first instance of sexual harassment I'd heard talked about openly, and it was with such derision.
"So now, to be living in a time where people are actually accepting the term, and believe that it's legitimate to complain about it -- this is a very big change. I hope it filters into other industries. And I hope it filters into other things besides gender. We have the same old blind spots when it comes to racism and classism. I hope it creates a larger conversation about all the things we've been willing to accept that are totally unacceptable."
Aesthetics: In a recent Toronto interview, Polley said: "I think I'm done trying to make elegant films that subtly talk about something. This isn't the time for that." I asked her to elaborate. "That's how I'm feeling in the world right now," she said. "I care less right now about trying to be an aesthetically sophisticated filmmaker than about saying what needs to be said. Some of my favorite filmmakers manage to do both: People like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh are able to make films that have a political context and are still great films. So it's possible. But for me right now, the priority's elsewhere, and everyone's films are entering a world going through a very, very tumultuous time."
Our American president: "I don't think this whole Harvey Weinstein thing would've happened without Trump. People are so frustrated and furious and feel so much injustice (about) living under this man who bragged about sexual assault. The shock and rage are so deep that people now are doing what they can, where they can, to combat their sense of powerlessness and fear. There's an awakening among a lot of people on these issues, and I'm not sure it would've happened without the president you have."
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