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Margaret Atwood on ‘Alias Grace’: ‘If I Had Known the Truth, I Wouldn’t Have Written a Book’

TIFF: At the world premiere of the upcoming CBC/Netflix miniseries, Atwood and showrunner Sarah Polley explained why no narrator can be trusted.

Alias Grace

Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

For someone who has established such an illustrious and prolific career from crafting stories rife with nuanced themes of identity, gender, and complacency, Margaret Atwood has a fairly disenchanted view of narrators. Namely, she believes that none of them should be taken at face value.

“I don’t think anyone is a reliable narrator — in real life or anywhere else,” she told audiences Thursday night at the TIFF world premiere of “Alias Grace.” “Who tells the absolute truth all the time? There was a movie made where people were cursed with having to tell the absolute truth all the time and the result was… not pretty.”

The upcoming six-part miniseries from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation and Netflix is based on Atwood’s novel of the same name, and is a pet project from producer and actress Sarah Polley, who started trying to option the rights when she was just 17 years old. Polley wrote all six episodes, which were directed by Mary Harron; Toronto-born Sarah Gadon (“11.22.63”) and Edward Holcroft (“Wolf Hall”) star.

Indeed, the reliance of narration is a central theme to the 1996 source material, which tracks the story of real-life “murderess” Grace Marks (Gadon) as she sits down to tell her story to fictional alienist Dr. Simon Jordan (Holcroft), hired by those campaigning for her release. The 16-year-old Irish-Canadian immigrant and maid was convicted in 1843 alongside servant James McDermott (Kerr Logan) for the murders of Capt. Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin), who was also rumored to be his mistress and pregnant with her second child at the time of her death.

Alias Grace

While McDermott was hanged for his part in the crimes, Marks was sentenced to death but then later shown mercy with a life sentence at Ontario’s Kingston Penitentiary (former home to convicted serial killer Paul Bernardo) instead. She was released nearly 40 years later, fled to New York under the alias Mary Whitney and disappeared from the history books altogether.

Not that what was recorded there was exactly accurate.

As most high-profile cases of murder tend to be (and as the current climate for true-life crime stories on television continues to dictate), Marks’ story was highly recorded and recounted, with those arguing for her innocence and guilt coming out in droves. It was an era in Canadian history where casual visitors to the jail could be taken to see the supposed killer like a caged animal in a zoo, and there was an additional fascination (and often mistreatment) towards women who apparently defied human nature by performing evil acts. With everyone but Marks speaking for her and about her, little is known of what actually happened on that fateful summer day in 1843. That’s precisely why Atwood wanted to tackle the story in the first place, and why she threw herself into researching and writing a narrative that winds all of Marks’ stories together.

“There were so many different, contradictory stories about Grace Marks; nobody actually ever knew whether she had killed anybody or not. There were four people in the house. Two of them were murdered, the third one was hanged and she was the one left. And she never told,” Atwood said following the screening of the first two episodes. “If I had known the truth, I probably wouldn’t have written a book. And if I had known the truth and told it to Sarah [Polley], she probably wouldn’t have made this show. The interesting thing is the way everybody projects their ideas onto Grace. The fact that she had various stories that she told to different audiences… well, that always affects the story that you tell — who the audience is. Does it not?”

That fascination is in part what drove nearly 1,000 TIFF-goers to the Winter Garden Theatre for the premiere Thursday night, packing the house in what is perhaps appropriately known to be the last double-decker Edwardian Theatre facility in the world — one that’s said, by the employees who work there, to be haunted. (The venue also happens to house the seat another famed criminal, John Dillinger, famously occupied at Chicago’s Biograph Theater right before he was killed by law enforcement outside; the seat was unknowingly purchased and refurbished as part of the Winter Garden Theatre’s restoration in the 1980s.)

Alias Grace

Canadians’ ongoing fascination with Atwood, especially on the heels of Hulu’s Emmy-nominated adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was another clear reason for the packed crowd; the air was palpable when Atwood took the stage alongside the other creatives and cast. Fittingly for such a Canadian premiere, Ontario’s Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport Eleanor McMahon was also in the house, while Minister of Canadian Heritage Melanie Joly made introductions on behalf of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In fact, add in an on-screen cameo by David Cronenberg and a cast rounded out by the likes of Anna Paquin and Paul Gross, and it was a Canadian celebration all-around. Few other projects that have been a part of TIFF’s three-year-old Primetime program have boasted such clout, or had to turn away eager crowds at $59 CAN per general admission ticket.

Atwood, audiences, and eager viewers aren’t the only ones obsessed with Marks’ story, though. Her portrayer in “Alias Grace,” Sarah Gadon, didn’t just have to work hard at her Irish accent and do most of the heavy lifting in nearly ever scene in order to capture the woman whose story remains ambiguous to this day. She’s also inadvertently become the poster child for Marks’ story (her photo appears on the historical figure’s Wikipedia page, for instance), and is feeling the pressure heading into the Sept. 25 CBC premiere (the episodes drop globally Nov. 3 on Netflix).

“Everyone gets seduced by the idea of trying to crack Grace. I would get so wrapped up in that in prep that I would have to just suddenly go for a run because I physically needed to find a way through it,” she said. “What really helped in finding the character was deciding to do different versions of her. I play her from about 15-years-old onwards, so it was pretty epic… I’m so haunted by her.”

Now that’s a narrative worth telling.

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