The period drama “Alias Grace” might not seem as thematically relevant to the year 2017 as the other big Margaret Atwood novel adaptation which streamed this year. Until, that is, you talk to writer and producer Sarah Polley about it.
“[Grace’s] job is to not respond to endless amounts of harassment and violence. I think a lot of women can relate to that, right now and at every period in history. I think that women have been in this position, no matter what field they’re in,” Polley told IndieWire in the lead-up to the show’s release on Netflix.
While Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” depicts a brutal dystopian society that is still, thankfully, fiction, “Alias Grace” trips back to 1800s Canada, telling the true story of Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a young Irish woman convicted of murder who may or may not have been truly guilty.
Grace’s innocence, or lack thereof, is the central question of the series, but along the way, the show tackles the circumstances which contributed to her lot in life. As a domestic servant with little agency, her involvement in the deaths of her employers is given equal weight with her place in society at that time.
“She’s a domestic Irish servant,” Polley said. “She’s the bottom rung of the social ladder. She’s lower class, she’s an immigrant, she’s female, so she’s harassed on every side, at every moment of her life… I think a lot of women can relate to that, right now and at every period in history.”
Added Polley, “I think that many women have been in this position, no matter what field they’re in. I think things get easier for some people as they climb the class ladder. It’s certainly harder for women who don’t have a voice than it is for women who do and who have affluence but it’s something that, as we’ve seen, can affect women at pretty much every level of their lives.”
Of course, right now the fact that for nearly two months, women have been actively speaking out against sexual harassment and assault (women including Polley herself) has felt genuinely revolutionary.
“What makes this moment interesting is what we are starting to see is women responding. That’s something that in our history as a gender we have not had the right to do and it has not been acceptable for us to do and no one would have cared if we did,” she said.
There’s still a class issue to be considered, one which speaks to issues also brought up by “Alias Grace.” As Polley puts it, “These conversations are happening at a very high level. I don’t see a huge movement on behalf of domestic workers, or people who are voiceless, or new refugees, who are also dealing with all these issues in an even more extreme way every day.”
Yet, Polley explained that it’s “really helpful that these conversations are happening so publicly and loudly because… This is perhaps being naïve and optimistic, but I think it potentially opens up a new chapter in women’s history, where we get to actually respond.”
What’s changed? “The conversation and the fact that people are having it. And I think that a change in what happens in a public conversation, if it happens loudly and broadly enough, is bound to be the very beginning of substantial change,” Polley said.
However, Polley continued, “Substantial change will be a long time coming. Our judicial system has not changed. Our power structures have not changed. An economic system that is based and thrives on inequality has not changed. So until those things change, we’re gonna to see a lot of inequality and abuse. That’s not just a gender issue, that’s also a race issue, it’s a class issue.”
That said, Polley did conclude on a positive note. “To think that the whole world is gonna suddenly overnight change in favor of those that have been marginalized I think is naïve,” she said. “But to say that this conversation and that the fact that people are willing to have it now is a start, I think is… isn’t just optimistic. I think that’s a real thing. Then, you sort of want to see the practical things change around that.”
“Alias Grace” premieres Friday, November 3 on Netflix.