15 – 90mins – 1990
27 years before Hulu remade it into a highly-acclaimed and much-discussed, must-see television series, Margaret Atwood’s eye-opening 1985 dystopian novel was adapted to film, courtesy of a Harold Pinter screenplay. Critically commended though it was, an eleventh hour change of director led to rewrites Pinter was “too tired” to work on, so he suggested incoming helmer Volker Schlöndorff return to the author for any “tinkering,” leading the Nobel-Prize winning playwright to all-but disown credit for such a “hodgepodge.”
In the near-future, a pollution-wracked America is known as the Republic of Gilead, its government overthrown by an Old Testament-fueled totalitarian regime. 99% of the population have been rendered barren, so all child-rearing women are enslaved in a fundamentalist right-wing cult which trains them, through often violent indoctrination, to become “Handmaids” – emotionless surrogate sex partners for the wealthy-but-infertile.
This particular Tale is Kate’s (Natasha Richardson), a mother captured attempting to cross the border into Canada. Her husband shot and her young daughter left wandering alone in the wild, Kate is forced into the cult-like convent where torture is all-too regular and sex for pleasure is considered a treasonous crime. Her name changed to “Offred” and allocated to the house of the “Commander” (Robert Duvall) and his wife (Faye The Bye Bye Man Dunaway), the woman-who-was-Kate attempts to beat the system, win freedom and learn the fate of her child.
Potent as the horrifying message undoubtedly is, and hard-hitting as scenes of hanging nuns and mass-beatings are, I failed to feel as emotionally invested – or as outraged at the injustice exacted upon the mistreated – as I hoped I would be. My feelings of disconnect were borne out of the red habits the Handmaids wear as a uniform, the unnatural surroundings in which they are imprisoned and the changing of America’s name. Each of those – admittedly small, seemingly trivial – factors separate the drama from reality and made the film feel more like a twisted fantasy than a satirical warning in the same vein as George Orwell’s 1984.
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