TORONTO — Sarah Polley’s new TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel “Alias Grace” has been about 20 years in the making.
As it turns out, the timing couldn’t be more perfect.
Debuting Monday on CBC-TV and Nov. 3 on Netflix globally outside of Canada, the Ontario-shot miniseries comes after the smash success of another recent adaptation of Atwood’s work, eight-time Emmy winner ”The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Both projects are timely examinations of female identity and the treatment of women in society.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a look forward at a totalitarian theocracy that makes women property of the state, while “Alias Grace” is a look back at the mysterious true story of Grace Marks, a poor Irish immigrant and maid who was convicted of murder in Upper Canada in 1843 and exonerated decades later.
“We are in this critical moment and it is important for us to weigh both of those things — where we come from and where we’re going,” says Sarah Gadon, who plays Marks.
“Also this idea of complacency and being submissive as a woman and in Grace you see all of that anger, all of that repressed rage bubbling beneath the surface, and I feel like this is also kind of where we’re at right now.
“We are bubbling, we are ready to take action, and that is very reflective in our show.”
Director/producer Mary Harron says both series show “how all the women, even the women in the upper-class roles, are prisoners of their system … how women are victimized and they also sometimes victimize each other.”
“The issues raised by the last election in the States, when women’s rights — the idea of abortion being outlawed in certain places — there’s an attempt to turn back the clock and ‘Alias Grace’ shows you, ‘Well this is what that was like, actually. Let’s not be so romantic about the 19th century in a traditional society,” adds Harron.
Polley wrote and produced the adaptation of “Alias Grace,” a story that has captivated her since she read the book “over and over again” as a teen. The enigmatic Marks is the most interesting character she’s ever read and her story is like a puzzle with “an endless number of layers,” she says.
“The films that I’ve written and directed, in a funny way, they all feel like echoes of this one,” says Polley, who also explored themes of memory and truth in her documentary “Stories We Tell” and in the film “Away from Her,” an adaptation of an Alice Munro story that won her an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay.
“I think it really spoke to me personally about the duality inside us and the many different people we can be and the voices we have inside us that are subconscious that we’ve repressed.”
Kerr Logan plays stable hand James McDermott, who was convicted along with Marks of the murders of their employer, Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), and housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin).
McDermott was hanged while Marks was sentenced to life imprisonment in a trial that came amid lingering tensions over the Upper Canada Rebellion. After 30 years in jail, she was exonerated.
The series is anchored around Marks recounting her story to fictional doctor Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft). In flashbacks, we see her rough journey to Canada and her experiences as a maid and accused murderess.
“Her trial was really like the O.J. Simpson trial of its time,” says Polley. “You had the poor Irish and Scottish on the one hand who believed absolutely that she was innocent, and you had the English and the gentry on the other hand who said absolutely she was guilty and she needed to be hanged. It was a huge spectacle.
“The floor of the courtroom broke because so many people were there to watch, screaming at each other.”
Atwood, 77, says she first came across Marks’s story in “Life in the Clearings versus the Bush” by Susanna Moodie and did meticulous research on her life and the times.
“When I was writing the novel, I wanted to allow a story that allowed for all possibilities,” says Atwood.
“The reporting on Grace was so contradictory. For instance, the murder house: A group of gentlemen walked into it, one of them said ‘Nothing was disarranged,’ the other one said, ‘Oh, it was all in disorder.’”
Polley first tried to option the rights to the book when she was 18. The project changed hands many times before she managed to grab the rights about five or six years ago.
Polley says the story isn’t about whether Marks was innocent or guilty. Instead, it’s a look at women, class and “preconceived notions of who immigrants are and what they deserve and don’t deserve.”
“One of the most important things to me about this process is for us to look back and be like, ‘Look at how the Irish were greeted when they first came,’” she says. “They were thought of as all criminals…. The truth was they were poor and that was their main crime.
“I just think that this is a moment when we have people from other countries desperately needing to come here, they’re in circumstances much like many of our great-grandparents were in or great-great grandparents were in, and I think we forget that.”