Volker Schlöndorff’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a movie treatment of the wonderful, darkly satirical novel by Margaret Atwood, set in a near-future dystopia ravaged by environmental catastrophe and a right-wing coup. The treatment succeeds in some ways and fails in others.
Atwood’s 1986 book was inspired by the faltering of the feminist movement, fears of the growing political power of the Religious Right in America in the early 1980’s (a phenomenon that continues up to the present day), and the alarms being rung by the environmental movement.
This dystopia, formerly the United States, is the “Republic of Gilead,” and Schlöndorff does a good job supplying all the exposition needed to fill the moviegoer in on this familiar-looking but strange place.
Gilead’s heavily polluted environment has led to mass sterility. At the same time, right-wing religious extremists have overthrown the government and established a religious society supposedly based on a “return to traditional values.” In the pursuit of these “values,” and supposedly in the best interests of the nation, the leaders of Gilead revamp society, putting themselves at the top with women serving them in various capacities – including the sexual enslavement of the fertile few to the elite men of Gilead.
Offred (Natasha Richardson) is one of these breeder slaves, a “handmaid.” In completely mortifying scenes, Offred’s leader, the “Commander” (Robert Duvall), beds her while his high-bred, chaste and apparently barren wife Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway) actually lays beneath Offred holding her down – it’s apparently supposed to represent the “extension” of the chaste wife that the handmaid’s person represents, as if the handmaid were only the walking set of ovaries of the wife. But Serena Joy is clearly less than overjoyed by the ritual, or by the Commander’s obvious interest in Offred as more than a set of ovaries, and it becomes clear that all of Gilead’s women are victims in their own way.
There's no doubt that Gilead is a nightmare society, and Schlöndorff conveys that well -- it’s all very plausible and frightening. It just isn’t any fun, and that is where the movie adaptation fails the book. Atwood’s book has barbed satire at every turn, constantly having fun with clever references to current events (circa 80's) to the Bible, and a whole variety of other sources.
The movie is simply tense. It reminds me of what Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal might be like if made into a straight horror movie. Like Swift’s “proposal,” The Handmaid’s Tale is supposed to shock you, but you’re also supposed to see the frightful absurdity of the ideas being lampooned. Satire needs to make you smile, and there’s no smiling to be had in Schlöndorff’s movie.
Elizabeth McGovern plays Moira, who lands at the Handmaid indoctrination facility along with Offred. Moira is a "gender traitor" -- a lesbian -- and is not quite ready to march off to the house of an affluent man as a walking set of ovaries. She sets her own course, and through her rebellion – and Gilead's reaction to it -- the true face of this supposedly-devout society is revealed. Though it's a small part, as usual McGovern plays the character well.
In and of itself, The Handmaid’s Tale works pretty well as a Dark Future movie, but fans of the book will be expecting a lot more.