Running time: 108 min.
Release date: March 9, 1990
The Handmaid's Tale is an adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel of the same name. It depicts the very sci-fi convention of a dystopian future but this time it puts a different spin on the story: a female perspective. The film had a somewhat troubled production with the original director, Karel Reisz, leaving the project and the original screenwriter, Harold Pinter, abandoning his duties due to exhaustion. The end result is a film that struggles to focus on the deep ideas and themes that were at the center of the original source material. Plus, it doesn't help that the cast is playing things so low-key that it's hard to tell if they are phoning it in or legitimately bored.
The Republic of Gilead, formerly known as the United States of America, is waging war within itself as a conservative totalitarian government attempts to "cleanse" the landscape. Pollution has rendered almost the entire population sterile. Kate (Natasha Richardson) and her husband are attempting to flee to Canada with their young daughter when they are caught by the border guard. Kate's husband is killed and her daughter flees at the command of her mother, never to be seen again. Kate is captured and taken to a training facility with many other women, where they receive training (or brainwashing) to become handmaids. The handmaids are then later matched up with a privileged couple in order to be used as a sort-of concubine so that they may possibly bear children, since sterility is the soup du jour in this future. The handmaids are trained in the Old Testament and those in charge inflict ritualistic violence upon the women. Soon, Kate is sent to the home of The Commander (Robert Duvall) and his wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway). She is given a new name: Offred ("of Fred", the Commander's first name). The setting of the story has moved from the cold ans sterile halls of the training facility to what appears to be a nice, quiet and well-manicured suburb as we find that there is a sun in this future. Up to this point, everything was so drab and dreary and grey, with only the reds and blues of the handmaid's and the wives to color things up.
The Commander's first attempt at impregnating Offred shows a strange ritual where Serena Joy holds Offred in her lap while the Commander.....does his thing. Offred is left emotionally violated, in one of the film's only moving moments. Later on, on a check-up with a doctor, she is told that the Commander may be sterile. Serena Joy is aware of this, so she offers Offred the services of the chauffeur, Nick (Aidan Quinn). Offred and Nick strike up a relationship of some sort, which is never fully established. This subplot has some bearing on the climax, but not giving Offred and Nick screen time to build to that is one of the failures of the plot. The Commander wants to get closer to Offred/Kate in the hopes that she would become a better handmaid if she would just enjoy herself, dammit! The story really has zero momentum going for it and struggles to move forward from one scene to the next. It doesn't help that the tone and atmosphere of the film are difficult to establish with scenes of suburban life mixing in with the ravages of this future war. There are shadings of feminist themes also at play, but they are stifled by the lack of any energy to this plot.
Director Volker Schlondorff previously won an Academy Award for the film The Tin Drum, which won Best Foreign Language Film in 1980 and was a prominent member of the German New Wave cinematic movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Schlondorff gets style points for creating such a dreary image of the future and then breaking it up with basic colors like red, blue and white (the colors of the American flag, which is no more in the context of this story). There are some sunny scenes to break the monotony of all the bleak grey, but it's not enough, really. The film needed a serious infusion of energy; there is a moment or two near the end, but by then it's all too little too late.
Natasha Richardson's lead performance is the focal point, but she contributes to the film's lack of joy. We never get the feeling that there are still remnants of a rebellious woman under her red cloak. She suppresses her emotions too much, making us long for someone with a little more spark. Maybe Elizabeth McGovern would have been a better choice. McGovern plays Moira, a woman who befriends Kate/Offred in the training facility. McGovern plays Moira with the right amount of energy and rebelliousness, so that when she appears on screen she is a welcome relief. Robert Duvall provides a curiously muted performance as the Commander, while Faye Dunaway, like McGovern, is involved in a few of the film's better scenes. Watching McGovern and Dunaway take the shine from the star, Richardson, speaks volumes about this production and the miscasting.
Ultimately, The Handmaid's Tale has a lot that it wants to say about being a woman in this dystopian society, but like a bad dream, the translation is strangled by a grey, lifeless hand. I'm not sure how Margaret Atwood envisioned her words, but viewing audiences certainly require some semblance of momentum to keep them glued to the screen. This film was a disappointment and is not indicative of the work of everyone involved.