THE HANDMAID’S TALE (1990)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Handmaid poster

Directed by: Volker Schlondorff

Written by: Harold Pinter

(based on the novel THE HANDMAID’S TALE by Margaret Atwood)

Starring: Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway, Elizabeth McGovern, Aidan Quinn & Victoria Tennant

Based on Margaret Atwood’s controversial novel of the same name, THE HANDMAID’S TALE is a film that brings a unique and horrible dystopian future to the screen. The plot follows one woman’s life in this very bleak future. As cool and creative as its premise might be, the film suffers from noticeable faults. There isn’t necessarily a problem with the story per se, but the pacing and performances are where most of the problems lie in this flawed, though interesting, piece of mature science fiction.

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In the near future, the United States of America has become the Republic of Gilead and pollution has caused a massive outbreak of sterility. Kate is one of the few fertile women left in the country. On a snowy afternoon, she’s caught at the border and her husband is shot, while her daughter is simply lost in the wilderness. Placed into a cult-like program, Kate becomes a Handmaid, essentially just a womb for rich people to impregnate. In her “sophisticated” captivity, Kate discovers that the Commander (the head of her household) might be sterile himself, so she is faced with a dangerous dilemma.

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The future that HANDMAID’S TALE crafts is a shocking and somewhat believable one. The Constitution is no more and equality (a couple of throwaway lines address what’s happened to minorities, atheists, and the LGBT community) is a forgotten relic of the past. The Bible is now read as a government text, ritualized violence is seen as the norm, graphic executions are delivered for adultery, and there is no problem seen in owning sex slaves (as long as they call them Handmaids, then it’s A-Okay). I’ve seen some comments that refer to the film as appearing very ugly and plain, but I feel that was a deliberate intention on the part of the filmmakers. Four colors of outfits are mainly seen throughout (blue, red, white, and black) and this fits in very well with the cultish attitude of those in charge of this totalitarian government. Everything is about modesty and anyone not in keeping with the rest of society is shunned, shamed, or even worse. If the rest of the film was as compelling as the world HANDMAID’S TALE builds up around it, then this might be an overlooked gem.

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The biggest problem with this movie comes from the performances. You’d assume that the plot would be far more effective if Kate (later named Offred) was an emotional, quietly strong heroine. That’s not the case though as Natasha Richardson has a constant look of apathy on her face, even when she’s supposed to be very upset or happy. Some might equate this to the character being forced to become emotionless as a Handmaid, but I’d chalk it all up to Richardson simply not being able to emote enough to make this story as powerful as it could be.

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The same wooden quality also comes from two veteran performers as well. Faye Dunaway (CHINATOWN, BONNIE & CLYDE) isn’t nearly as cold as she probably should be in the role of Kate’s mistress. We’re supposed to get the sense that Dunaway’s Serena Joy (nice name for a villainess) is a calculating monster who doesn’t care that her quest for a baby involves a sexual slave, but that never comes across. Experiencing the opposite problem is Robert Duvall (THE GODFATHER, APOCALYPSE NOW) as the Commander. We’re told by a side character how ruthless, sinister and evil this guy is, but Duvall plays him as a somewhat sympathetic figure. In a better movie, this might have made for a complex villain, but instead it just seems out of character when we finally see a somewhat sinister side to the man.

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The pacing that HANDMAID’S TALE moves at doesn’t exactly leave a ton of room for character development or for its complex plot threads to be fully fleshed out. The final 20 minutes are rushed beyond belief and could have easily been made more effective and rewarding, if the running time had been stretched out for a little longer. Instead of being an effective, rewarding conclusion, the ending feels like a series of quick out-of-place action clichés that come out of nowhere.

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HANDMAID’S TALE is not a good movie, but there’s definitely a premise for a great film inside of this somewhat lackluster effort. I was interested in this nightmarish ultra-right-wing future and the film delivers a couple of powerful shocks (a scene in a night club bathroom is one of the best moments of the whole film). My biggest complaint comes from the confused performances that are simply not in line with how we’re told these characters should be acting (mainly from an exposition-spewing side character who occasionally pops up to further the story along). I don’t say this often, but this is a film that could definitely be improved with a remake.

Grade: C+

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