The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)

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Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is a number of things: a political cautionary tale, a feminist manifesto, a powerful science-fiction story. That it’s been turned into a 2017 television series on Hulu says much about its universal themes of human subjugation, freedom, and the abuse of power. Thirty years ago the book might have read as a frightening but merely imaginative vision—the evils of a fundamentalist patriarchy taking over the government—yet in today’s unstable political climate it seems chillingly prophetic.
     Volker (The Tin Drum) Schlöndorff’s film version was overlooked in 1990; its box office returns were minimal despite—or perhaps because of—its being marketed as an erotic thriller. Who knows how it might have fared had its distributor utilized the first edition’s cover art, a disturbing, surrealist image by Tad Aronowicz that skillfully articulates the horrors of misogyny politicized.
     The film certainly sports a top-shelf cast. Natasha Richardson plays Kate, one of the few fertile women left in the Republic of Gilead, forced to work as a handmaiden bedecked in flowing red vestments symbolizing fertility. Her mistress, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway), is one of the elite (they wear blue) who is unable to bear children and needs Kate as a surrogate. Serena Joy’s husband (Robert Duvall) is known simply as The Commander; he’s partial to Scrabble, games of skill, and state-sanctified rape. Rounding out the name performers are Elizabeth McGovern as Moira, Kate’s tough-talking, “gender traitor” confidante, Victoria Tennant (All of Me) as a futuristic Nurse Ratched, and a scrubbed-and-ready Aidan Quinn in a beret, who helps fuel the misplaced eroticism those marketers were going for.
     Despite the intriguing and competent company, Schlöndorff’s treatment is idly drab and antiseptic, indifferent almost, as though he felt Atwood’s vision was cinematic enough. We aren’t nearly as engaged as we ought to be; the film feels passive and sterile, with Harold Pinter’s stark and abbreviated screenplay weakening Atwood’s passionate warnings. Hulu, it would appear from early feedback, sensibly seems to have gone the “haunting and vivid” route instead.

(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth

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