The Handmaid's Tale


The Handmaid's Tale Review

Margaret Atwood's highly regarded novel came to the screen in 1990 in an uneven yet still gripping production (newly released on DVD). Natasha Richardson makes perhaps the biggest impact in her career as Offred, the "handmaid" at the center of a dystopic future where ultra-right wing factions are in control of the government, martial law rules, and biological agents have rendered 99% of women sterile. Those women who are still fertile and have been convicted of some crime, however ridiculous, become handmaids, stripped from their lives and sentenced to service the remaining rich and powerful, whose wives can't conceive children.

Offred finds herself at the mercy of a good-natured but subtly manipulative commander (Robert Duvall) and his faded-star wife Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway). And soon enough she slips her way into an underground aiming to overthrow the fascist regime.

Atwood's tale is brilliant, but a little something is missing in its translation to the screen. The major flaw is with the direction by Volker Schlöndorff (Palmetto, tons of German films you've never heard of), who isn't exactly the most renowned director on the planet and is considerably out of his element with this extremely challenging material. The movie ends up as a good one, but the nearly-farcical future-shock makes you inevitably compare it to Brazil, and that's a comparison that few films can stand up to. Never mind the directing talent, Schlöndorff simply doesn't have the budget to pull off a realistic version of even the near-future. The movie is fairly solid up until Offred's wholesale recruitment into the resistence, whereupon the film starts to slip into oddity.

The ending comes suddenly, reminding us that two hours have passed and we haven't reached a resolution. And it doesn't entirely satisfy, either. The ending feels way too much like the "happy ending" tacked onto Brazil -- and which ultimately became a cinematic joke (see the Criterion release of that film for an in-depth look at this phenomenon). Still, it's a pretty good movie if for no other reason than its sheer guts at calling out the religious right while still maintaining a sense of sophistication. That's rare indeed.

The Handmaid's Tale

Facts and Figures

Run time: 108 mins

In Theaters: Friday 9th March 1990

Distributed by: HBO Video

Production compaines: Bioskop Film, Cinecom Entertainment Group, Cinetudes Films

Reviews 3.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 23%
Fresh: 3 Rotten: 10

IMDB: 6.0 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Volker Schlöndorff


Starring: as Kate / Offred, as Serena Joy, as The Commander, as Nick, as Moira, as Aunt Lydia, as Ofglen, as Janine / Ofwarren, Kathryn Doby as Aunt Elizabeth, Reiner Schöne as Luke (as Rainer Schoene), Gary Bullock as Officer on bus