The Handmaid's Tale
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With "cool eroticism, intelligence and intensity" (Playboy), this eerie futuristic thriller,based on Margaret Atwood's controversial and critically acclaimed best-selling novel, is filled with "large themes and deep thoughts" (Roger Ebert). Boasting a phenomenal cast, including Natasha Richardson (Nell) and Oscar(r) winners* Faye Dunaway (Network) and Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies), this film "dazzles with its ingenuity and shocks with its outrageousness" (WNCN Radio)! In the not-so-distant future, strong-willed and beautiful Kate (Richardson) possesses a precious commodity that most women have lost and most men want to control fertility. Forced into a brain-washing boot camp that turns fertile women into surrogate mothers for social-elite men and their infertile wives, Kate thinks she's made out well when she's assigned to an eminent partyleader (Duvall). But when she learns that he's sterile, she's faced with the impossible choice: produce him an heir or die! *Dunaway: Actress, Network (1976); Duvall: Actor, Tender Mercies (1983)
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I actually liked this film even with its few campy scenes (Elizabeth McGovern stealing Aunt Lydia’s uniform in order to escape, tying her to a flushing toilet, for one). Elizabeth McGovern was actually excellent in this.
This story takes place in the “recent future” in the U.S., or at least a part of it that has been taken over by rebels and renamed The Republic of Gilead. It does fit into the dystopian genre in which some environmental horrors have taken place, leaving most of the women sterilized and unable to bear children. The women are divided into groups and hauled away in cattle cars based upon their ability to bear children. The ones who are fertile must procreate for their country. The others are divvied up to perform other functions – mostly Marthas (maids) and Aunts (the military-type instructors who teach and monitor the Handmaids), but the majority of the infertile women go to labor camps (“the colonies”) never to be seen again. A select few are saved for prostitution purposes (of course). Many of the men are also unable to father children, but it’s a man’s world and because men matter, they all have a function, mainly military.
Natasha Richardson’s character was a librarian before the revolution. When she and her husband try to cross the border of Gilead with their young daughter, they are captured. He is killed, she is sent off to become a Handmaid (named Offred) and the child is taken away to who knows where (we find out later).
The rest of the story revolves around Offred’s schooling, placement with a high-level commander (Robert Duvall) and his wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway), and her mediocrely portrayed heartbreak over not knowing the fate of her daughter. Add to the mix Aiden Quinn as the Commander’s security chief (token hottie).
I shouldn’t give too much more away about the plot. Suffice it to say, Offred gets mixed up in the revolution and “escapes.”
I think the most frightening aspect about this is the control men exert over women through male dominance and the use of a skewed Christian doctrine rewritten to benefit men. Women are labeled, categorized and organized. They are not permitted to read, they cannot go out, wear cosmetics or even use moisturizing lotion (Offred steals pats of butter from the dinner tray to use on her dry skin until the Commander gifts her real moisturizing cream). Women – even high-ranking women like Serena Joy – wear uniforms so that they are identifiable within the categories. The wives wear royal blue ensembles, the Handmaids wear red jumpers, the Aunts brown suits and pearls, the Marthas wear maid’s clothing. The men, other than military, wear whatever they want. In essence, women are nothing more than objects. At a certain level, you could even categorize the wives as objects, though I don’t think they are programmed to see themselves that way.
The film does not capture the fear Offred and the other Handmaid’s actually experienced. The movie’s Offred seems to be going with the flow, seemingly unconcerned at her impending doom (death) at not being able to get pregnant by her infertile Commander. There are a few scenes where she almost seems to be enjoying herself, playing games with the Commander in his secret den, commenting to Martha about what a beautiful day it seems to be, joking with Aiden Quinn about their liaison to help get her pregnant. You didn’t get that sense about Offred in the book because she lived in a constant state of emotional terror in a world where there was nothing to look forward to each day – just an empty, lonely existence as a tool for the Commander’s purposes.
I still enjoyed the film and I’m glad I purchased it when I did because it’s virtually impossible to get now. But I am looking forward to the new series that might end up telling the story more accurately to the book’s account. I will also be rereading the book before the series begins.
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