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Television Alias Grace: An ambitious, almost brilliant Margaret Atwood adaptation

It is incumbent on anyone writing about the CBC adaptation of Alias Grace to mention the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale. Not because the two productions are, necessarily, companion pieces adapted from the same author, but because the viewer is going to be thinking about the latter while watching the former. It isn't long before the viewer is disabused.

Alias Grace (Monday, CBC, 9 p.m.) is tightly wound, stark and knowing about its central female protagonist. It is a very literary and at times elliptical adaptation, one that soars when it reaches into the elusive soul of Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) and at times the six-part series hits you like a headache, it is so charged and sententious. It is sometimes gloriously exciting as Grace is revealed in oh-so-many twisted ways and, simultaneously, it suffers from the great curse of Canadian TV drama – it becomes visually inert when imaginative vigour and freshness of expression are called for.

Adapted by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron, the series is, for those unfamiliar with Margaret Atwood's novel, a murder mystery of sorts set in Victorian Canada. When we first meet Grace Marks in 1859, she is a "celebrated murderess," having been found guilty and imprisoned, at the age of 16, for the murder of her master and mistress. What happened isn't easily understood. By anyone, that is, and that seems to include Grace.

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But, essentially, Grace attempts to tell her story – as she sees it – to Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft). The doctor is groping toward what today we would call psychiatry and is tasked with figuring out if Grace is mad or innocent. There are layers beneath that, but it is, in essence, the plot.

Grace begins being interviewed by the doctor and carefully tells her tale. This is not, however, a straightforward matter. Sometimes we are hearing Grace talk to the doctor, sometimes we are seeing Grace through his eyes and sometimes we are hearing what Grace put down in writing about the alleged murder and about her interactions with her unhurried interrogator. Sometimes it's Grace's acid, eloquent tongue talking to herself.

That story is of a child brought to Canada by her parents who were escaping Ulster in Ireland (what would now be Northern Ireland) and forging her path as a peasant girl in Toronto. There is the ship voyage to Canada – dramatized with succinctness, if not the catastrophic horror documented in historical accounts – and reluctant flight from a drunken, violent father and then seeking sanctuary. There is a typical Victorian trope at work – Grace's mother died on the voyage from Ireland, her father put her out to work, she's looking for the home and hearth that will be her haven, a refuge from the storm of her life.

Grace's story comes in fragments and as the viewer will notice she is also making a quilt from scraps of material – her narrative comes together in bits and pieces. And they often shift from the mundane to the startling. Grace is formidably erudite ("Knowledge gained with a lurid glare to it," she says of what Dr. Jordan wants) and thoughtful, disinclined to hold back, although not always when talking to the doctor. At the heart of the drama is the intricacy of her story, its ebbs and flows through the dangerous waters of what she says to herself and the safer waters of what she says to others.

The engine that drives it all is Gadon's outrageously simmering performance. She conjures a palpable sense of danger, emotional complexity and wariness of the truth. Somewhere in Grace's soul the truth resides, but delivering the sense of the character being fiercely emotionally circumspect is Gadon's truly remarkable achievement. It's fair to note that there is another exquisite performance, too – Rebecca Liddiard is gloriously good as Grace's friend Mary Whitney. Liddiard is emerging as something close to a show-stealer, and in a year has gone from dazzling work at the Tarragon Theatre in the play Mustard to outright theft of the Fox series Houdini and Doyle, and now this.

There is such ambiguity in the complicated story of Grace Marks that its adaptation is, itself, an achievement. And while the engine is Gadon's scarily unsettling intensity, the force that drives it all does stall at times. It seems confined, as with Grace herself, and especially lacking in carnality, though that is a trait of Atwood characters. The Dr. Jordan character is thin and some other characters that are part of Grace's story are even thinner.

There is also the matter of that default position in Canadian drama, the pretty sun-dappled staginess when it comes to period pieces. Some early American reviews of Alias Grace, since a portion of it screened at TIFF, have picked up on this weakness – it puckers and drags in the visually dormant segments.

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This weakness doesn't overwhelm it at all. The miniseries is a coolly pent-up, disturbing expedition toward something. Maybe toward what Grace refers to as Dr. Jordan's purpose – "You want to hold my beating female heart." As such, it is a murder mystery of special dialectical force. Put The Handmaid's Tale out of your mind.

If you were expecting that show's high-stakes manoeuvres aiming for immediate cultural impact, they aren't there. What is there is an ambitious, but flawed, drama about a fearsome female soul and, truthfully, you cannot take your eyes off her as she evades the truth.

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