The Handmaid's Tale

Must-See Cinema! What if Margaret Atwood’s not wrong?

The Handmaid’s Tale, starring Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway and Natasha Richardson, is a grim but absorbing foretelling of state-organized selective breeding, religious fervour and female subjugation in a setting described as ‘once upon a time in the recent future’.  

Poster for the 1990 dystopian drama The Handmaid's TaleIn this world, the effects of pollution have caused a veritable apocalypse; only one out of 100 women can bear children. So when the handmaid Offred (Richardson, offering just the right combination of frailty and emotional self-protection, frozen horror and dawning rebelliousness) is arrested for trying to leave the repressive Republic of Gilead, she’s pressed into national maternal service in a fertility station, where  handmaids (including soon-to-be ally Elizabeth McGovern) are indoctrinated and impregnated regularly amid a regime of quasi-fundamentalism. It soon becomes apparent to Offred that she has to deliver or die.

German director Volker Schlöndorff and screenwriter Harold Pinter streamline Margaret Atwood’s novel carefully, although cinematographer Igor Luther, with a deliberately foggy style, tells us with a little too much emphasis that this is an otherwordly bad dream. Yet, once you get pulled into the movie, The Handmaid’s Tale does turn out to be an otherworldly bad dream, with a time-delayed effect that hangs with you for days afterward, rapidly improving – or alarming – with age.

– Desson Howe, The Washington Post (March 1990)

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