Based on Margaret Atwood’s book of the same name, The Handmaid’s Tale (1990, dir. Volker Schlöndorff) is set in a future America named the Republic of Gilead, where society has been reconstructed to preserve human life. After a destructive nuclear war, politics and society have been completely merged with religious doctrine to ensure that the human race continues. Under this tyrannical theocracy, fertility is tightly controlled. Infertile women are sent to labour camps. Women able to become pregnant are forced to become Handmaids – dressed all in red so they are immediately identifiable, birthing children for the political elite. The Handmaid’s Tale follows Kate as she becomes a Handmaid to an influential military commander and negotiates her new role in society.
I read Margaret Atwood’s book during my final years of high school and absolutely loved it. It was an assigned text for year eleven English and I chose to write about it in my final exam. A couple of people in my class ended up watching the film back then, and told me that it was really bad compared to the book, so I never watched it until the other week. I think my love of the original source material influenced my perception of this film a lot. I watched it with people who hadn’t read the book, and half of them said it was “boring and shitty” and the other half were really intrigued by the themes of religious government and fertility control.
The story itself is very intriguing and unique. During the 1980s, there was a backlash on the feminist movement in the USA and Canada that inspired Atwood to write about a world where women are simply wives and babymakers, and where women’s fertility is more important than their social or emotional wellbeing. The context of this film is that post-war, a form of radiation has rendered many people infertile, and the population of the newly formed Republic of Gilead has greatly decreased. The Republic of Gilead, being a strict theocracy where everything is given a religious context, seeks to control population growth through the use of Handmaids; women who are found to be fertile and in perfect physical condition to give birth to children of men in high political and military positions. The children are then raised by the men and their wives, however the Handmaid will continue to serve the purpose of giving birth to more children. The film does a good job at communicating the basics of this story and of the volatile atmosphere where the Handmaids are brainwashed into accepting their role in society, and this can be creepy to watch at times.
Natasha Richardson stars as Kate, who is a new Handmaid. Once she begins working, her name becomes Offred, “of Fred”, relating to the Commander with whom she must work. We see her being trained to do the work of this role, but Kate does not accept her position as easily as some of the others. Along with her rebellious friend Moira, played by Downton Abbey‘s Elizabeth McGovern, she is able to clearly remember her life before the Republic of Gilead began, and cannot accept her new role in society. Richardson plays Kate/Offred with a dignified rage that perfectly represents how I felt Kate/Offred would act in the book. The other performances were very good. Faye Dunaway plays Serena Joy, Wife of the Commander, with an equal amount of rage at her own position in society and having to rely on another woman to have a child with her husband. Meanwhile, Robert Duvall is convincingly repulsive as the Commander who must procreate with his assigned Handmaid.
However, there are a number of flaws in this film. The direction is standard, on the verge of being mundane. There isn’t much of interesting camera work or angles. Everything seems to be shot from the same perspective or field of vision, which can become dull. There are some good close-ups of faces, especially those of Kate’s silent defiance, and a couple of moments that were directed well, but these were the moments where there was a bit of variation in the use of the camera and its focus. The cinematography could also be considered very standard, but I liked its use of colour symbolism – red for Handmaids, blue for Wives – and how colour was used to display different amounts of power. This is a film where you won’t really care who the director or cinematographer are, because they tend to just achieve the minimum they need to get their points across. The script by Harold Pinter, however, is quite good.
Although the film makes good use of the ideas presented in the source material, at times it feels like the world is so shallow, and that if the camera panned a couple of metres away you be able to see the world as it should normally look. I would contrast this with another post-war future dystopian sci fi drama Children of Men (2006) – with that film, the world seems neverending and so immersive. The world in Children of Men is constructed in a way that it feels neverending, and as a result the situation seems more desperate. With the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, it seems underexplored, which is frustrating, especially knowing that there was so much potential and interesting things to show. One wonders whether the political and religious themes of the film were too extreme or confronting to explore sufficiently, hence why it’s marketed in the trailer and many posters as being a ‘psychosexual drama’ (talk about reducing women to a Handmaid role) as opposed to a dystopian sci fi with highly political, religious, and feminist themes.
My ultimate recommendation? Please read Margaret Atwood’s book. I know this isn’t a book blog, but it really is worth a read, especially if you’re interested in dystopian sci fi, or books that focus on the roles of women in society. Even though I did enjoy watching this film, I think it was my love for the book that allowed me to stick with its story and characters. That’s when you know it’s not a very good book-to-film translation – I would definitely recommend the book over the film in this case.
Watch the trailer here (note: NSFW!).