Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

DVD: The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)

Before #MeToo, Harvey Weinstein’s reveal as a rapist, and Hulu’s 10 part TV series The Handmaid’s Tale starring Elizabeth Moss as Offred, was this 1990 film, directed by Volker Schlöndorff, scripted by Harold Pinter and starring Natasha Richardson (as the handmaid), Faye Dunaway (as Serena Joy), and Robert Duvall (the commander). Based on the novel of the same name by genius Margaret Atwood, this story tells the tale of Offred (Of Fred) formerly June/Kate, a woman who lived a normal life in ‘future’ America before radical ‘Christians’ take over the government, creating a fascist military state based on the teachings of the Old Testament and take away women’s rights.

I think anyone not familiar with the book/story would struggle somewhat with the film. Having only 1hr 49 mins to whizz through such a labyrinthine story has hindered the narrative, however, I have a feeling that new viewers to this might have been tempted by already seeing the new 10 episodes of the Hulu series. Here we get the full story of Offred, and a more nuanced performance from Moss.

It’s been difficult to review The Handmaid’s Tale, as I’m so familiar with the book, and also the series, and although it does follow the main story of the book, it’s almost ‘Handmaid light’, the position the handmaids are in doesn’t seem as desperate as it should. Here we have a military society who segregate women into whores (kept in secret), old women (infertile), posh women (also infertile), Handmaids (fertile) and young virgins. Wearing colour coded outfits the Handmaids must live in the houses of the rich childless couples, and when they are ovulating, take part in a rape ceremony, where the man of the household attempts to impregnate the handmaid while she lies on his wife. Horrible stuff. As soon as the maid gives birth, she is sent off never to see her child. The wives are complicit, desperate for a child to hang on to their probably infertile Husbands.

When this film came out it made a loss. It was seen as a sci-fi failure of sorts. Faye Dunaway doesn’t help much as she has to be one of the worst actors ever. Duvall actually gives some humanity to the part of the Commander, desperately wanting Offred to ‘love’ him (all men are obeyed, all men are superior) and when he is found out by his wife for his affair with Offred, Duvall cows and sends her away. Richardson is beautiful of course (so sad to think of her tragic end) but isn’t really right for the role of Offred, she’s just not steely enough, she’s too resigned to her fate when she should be a warrior.

So if you haven’t read the book or watched the TV series, this film is a really good place to start. It’s the bare bones of the story, ‘Handmade Light’ with none of the real power the TV series has. But that is because the series has time to really delve into this imagined society from all the women’s angles, from the cook to Serena Joy.

Essentially this is a story of hate. Men’s hate for women. The sexualisation and worthlessness of women for anything other than whatever men wish. Pregnancy, sex, cooking. It’s extremely powerful stuff.
I am a huge fan of the TV series, and on watching it felt after every single episode that men hate women. Because in tandem, the news that day was Trump and his pussy grabbing, Trump believing women who have abortions should be punished. Trump, who is the most powerful man on earth let’s remember, took worldwide funding away from abortion services around the time the show was on TV.

The power of the Handmaids Tale is that it’s very possible that this fascist patriarchy could happen. We seem to take a step closer to it every day. Worth a watch, then read the book!

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Review by Tina (co-host of 60 Minutes With) from a disc kindly supplied by Fabulous Films.