Director Volker Schlondorff and screenwriter Harold Pinter have adapted Margaret Atwood's much-admired feminist novel about the status of women in the not-so-distant future with little subtlety. Heavy-handed and literal-minded, THE HANDMAID'S TALE spins serious themes all over the screen
without managing to create engrossing drama from them. As the film opens, Kate (Natasha Richardson), with her husband and child, is trying to escape a totalitarian state by crossing its heavily guarded border. The trio are spotted by the police, the husband is shot, the child is left to wander,
and Kate is sent to a government facility. In the film's polluted, war-devastated future, few women are capable of bearing children--thus, Kate's fertility is both a reprieve from death and a sentence to sexual slavery. At the state indoctrination center, women are brainwashed with almost
religious fervor into accepting their new lot in life as docile "handmaids." Under these grim circumstances, Kate is befriended by Moira (Elizabeth McGovern), a self-deprecating lesbian who constantly plans her escape, and who finally pulls it off by feigning a fainting spell. After an interview
with Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway), the ultrareligious wife of a high-ranking government official known as the Commander (Robert Duvall), Kate becomes a sexually indentured slave in the couple's home. Each month, while Serena Joy holds her down, Kate is forced to endure loveless intercourse with the
Commander for the purpose of procreation. If she conceives, the child will be handed over to her masters. Learning of the existence of an underground resistance movement from a fellow handmaid (Blanche Baker), Kate begins to harbor hope of flight, and when she is temporarily reassigned to the
center, she risks her life to help the recaptured Moira decoy and subdue the facility's watchdog matron (Victoria Tennant), allowing Moira to flee again. Already playing psychological games with her master, who orders her to a secret rendezvous (a violation of the law), Kate is stunned when Serena
Joy suggests that she have sex with Nick (Aidan Quinn), the household's chauffeur, because Serena Joy fears the Commander is sterile. A surrogate child is this society's No. 1 status symbol, and Serena Joy wants one badly. To encourage Kate's cooperation, Serena Joy promises to bring the handmaid
news of her missing daughter, who may have been adopted by a prominent family. Back at the center, masters and servants attend a public execution where a handmaid who had illicit sex is hanged and an alleged rapist--later revealed to have been a political prisoner--is torn apart by the crowd. The
Commander, infatuated with his pretty slave, spirits Kate away to a top-secret nightclub/brothel where the elite power structure can hypocritically indulge in pleasures prohibited elsewhere, and where Kate is briefly reunited with Moira, who admits she prefers prostitution to the life of a
handmaid. Increasingly desperate, Kate doesn't want to give up the child she has conceived with Nick, whom she has come to love, and when the Commander summons her to his quarters with the intention of dismissing her (Serena Joy having found out about the love affair), Kate stabs him to death.
Arrested by state police, she mistakenly believes she's been betrayed by her lover; then, relieved to learn that the men who've apprehended her are actually revolutionaries, Kate begins a new life in the rebel-held mountains, awaiting reunion with Nick and better times.
One cannot disparage the loving care with which Atwood's fable has been brought to the screen, but despite the film's splendid production values and air of importance, The Handmaid's Tale has been handled rather clumsily. Faithfulness to a literary source is moot when the material is re-created
with so little cinematic inventiveness and so little dramatic vitality that points are blunted and the impact is diminished. An uneven filmmaker, Schlondorff brought "Death of a Salesman" (in Dustin Hoffman's TV version) and The Tin Drum to life on the screen, but failed in the Proust adaptation
SWANN'S WAY and now with THE HANDMAID'S TALE. Set pieces lifted from the novel fall with a thud here, and the film's tone seems off-kilter from its outset. Instead of presenting a harsh, forbidding, and effectively chilling environment, Schlondorff gives us a sometimes laughably heavy-handed
portrait of oppressive forces. Also damaging is the performance of Tennant, whose thin, whiny delivery botches the key role of the soulless mother hen who shepherds the handmaids through their training. The combination of Tennant's toothless acting, some amateurish performances among the ensemble
of handmaids, and Schlondorff's ham-fisted direction fashion a future feminist nightmare that seems as frightening as forced cheerleading tryouts for high-school rebels.
Having failed to terrify or astonish us with Atwood's bleak premise, the film slips further and further out of the director's control. We're never moved, merely enervated by the accumulation of future-shock horrors. With the exception of Duvall, who humanizes the powerful Commander, and McGovern,
who gives the performance of her career as the rebellious lesbian, no one in the cast commands our attention as they should. Still exhibiting traces of her MOMMIE DEAREST impersonation, Dunaway seems mannered and almost campy, while Richardson gives a phlegmatic performance. Schlondorff's
sensibility can work brilliantly when a project is attuned to his forceful, dogged touch, but Atwood's material needed to be approached more elliptically and with more restraint. Also implicated in the film's failure is playwright Pinter (whose screenplays include ACCIDENT and THE SERVANT).
Pinter's adaptation is uninspired, and this half-heartedness, combined with Schlondorff's heavy-handedness, serves to crush Atwood's feminist concerns through overkill and to turn a provocative novel into a screen polemic that invites no discussion. This isn't filmmaking; it's haranguing by
celluloid. (Violence, sexual situations, profanity.)
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- Released: 1990
- Rating: R
- Review: Director Volker Schlondorff and screenwriter Harold Pinter have adapted Margaret Atwood's much-admired feminist novel about the status of women in the not-so-distant future with little subtlety. Heavy-handed and literal-minded, THE HANDMAID'S TALE spins se… (more)