The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)

Rating: D+

Dir: Volker Schlöndorff
Star: Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Aidan Quinn

In the near future, America has become the Republic of Gilead, completely patriarchal and founded on the Old Testament, but a fertility crisis has left only 1% of women able to conceive. While trying to cross the border with her family, Kate (Richardson) sees her husband killed and her daughter taken away. She is forced to become a ‘handmaid’ – a surrogate womb – for the Commander (Duvall) and his wife, Serena (Dunaway). But it turns out the reason they haven’t been able to have a child of their own is because the Commander is infertile. Any failure to conceive will be blamed on the handmaid, and the penalty for failure is to be sent to the toxic colonies, which would end any hope of Kate being re-united with her daughter. The solution appears to lie in the hands groin of Nick (Quinn), the Commander’s sympathetic driver. However, the penalty for such treachery is death. Throw in Kate’s contacts in the resistance, who want her to assassinate the Commander, and it’s not much wonder Richardson wears a perpetually concerned expression.

The screenplay was written by Harold Pinter, based on a renowned novel by Margaret Atwood, but he tried, unsuccessfully, to have his name taken off the film. I can see why, as the first hour is basically an anti-male, anti-religious diatribe. So much is entirely unexplained, such as how Gilead came into being (in the book – published in 1985 – it was through a faked attack by Islamic terrorists. Hmmm…), or why Kate’s “handmaid” name is Offred (as in “of Fred”). The monotone shrieking we get instead, is pretty wearing on the nerves, and seeing Duvall on top of a “concerned” Richardson isn’t something I want to remember. Finally, the actual plot kicks in, just after the film’s most memorable scene, when an adulterous handmaid is publicly hung, and an alleged rapist is lynched by her colleagues – this has a nightmarish quality, reminiscent of The Devils. One wonders where the story had been for the first hour, as exploring this society – as is briefly done in the final third – could have been thought-provoking, instead of possessing all the appeal of a full weekend pass to your local loony feminist convention.