The Handmaid's Tale Review

It is the near future. North America has become the theocratic state, The Republic of Gilead. An outbreak of sterility has caused the remaining fertile women to become “handmaids”, employed by married couples to bear them children. Offred (Natasha Richardson), whose name derives from her master (“of Fred”) is one such handmaid, brought into the household of the Commander (Robert Duvall) and his wife Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway).

Margaret Atwood’s 1988 novel was a distinct departure for her, taking the feminist themes of her earlier work and deploying them in the genre of dystopian science fiction. While its literary credentials are not in doubt (it was a Booker Prize nominee and is a schools set text), its status as science fiction is more contentious. Too many non-genre writers take on well-worn SF tropes and themes and pride themselves on their originality. The Handmaid’s Tale winning of the first Arthur C. Clarke Award (the UK’s premiere SF award) was controversial, not least for Atwood’s disparaging remarks towards a genre she has returned to a couple of times since.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel that is calm on its surface – not a great deal “happens” - but its anger is not hard to detect underneath that outward calmness. However, in this adaptation by Harold Pinter and under Volker Schlondorff’s direction, that anger is oddly muted and changes made to the novel come over as miscalculations. This may be a mismatch of sensibilities. While I’m not going to suggest that only women can deal with feminist themes – which is something I don’t believe – it is often the case that injustice is often more sharply felt if you could potentially be on the receiving end of it, if there for the grace of God go you. While I’m sure that Pinter and Schlondorff were sincere in the making of this film, you can’t help wondering how much more impact if someone like the Dutch director Marleen Gorris, say, had made it. It’s a well-made film, to be sure, but it lacks fire: Schlondorff and his DP Igor Luther often seem more engaged by the abstract patterns the red-robed Handmaids and the white-robed Marthas make than by their plight.

In the novel, narrated by Offred in first person, we never know her real name. (It is implied that it may be June.) Offred, like many of Atwood’s, is not Superwoman, and she doesn’t defy the system as much as her friend Moira (Elizabeth McGovern) does. However, Pinter gives her a name (Kate) and a prologue where she is captured trying to cross the border and is separated from her husband and child. He retains Moira’s lesbianism (“gender treachery”) but omits the flashbacks filling in her political activist past. The Commander is an ambivalent figure to Atwood: outwardly a decent man but one to be indicted as part of the system he represents, and as much absurdly presumptuous as he is congenial (his method to engage her as a person rather than as a sperm receptacle is to challenge her to a game of Scrabble). It’s not insignificant that he is the likely cause of the failure to produce a child, though this is something for which Offred, and the handmaids before and after her, will take the blame.

The Handmaid's Tale remains watchable – with a cast like that it can't really fail to be. Just you feel it could be so much better than it is.


The Handmaid's Tale is released by Optimum on a DVD-5 encoded for Region 2 only, with the original rather harsh 18 certificate downrated to a 15.

The DVD is transferred in the correct ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. It's a strongly colourful if rather soft transfer, perhaps betraying its age. It's certainly acceptable but by no means demonstration quality.

This film was made just before the digital sound era, and the 2.0 (Dolby Surround) track on this DVD reflects the original sound mix. The sound mix is mostly front and centre in this dialogue-driven film, with the surrounds being used mainly for ambience, Ryuichi Sakamoto's music score and occasional directional effects. As ever with an English-language Optimum DVD, there are no subtitles.

The only extra is the theatrical trailer, which is non-anamorphic 1.85:1 and runs 2:45.

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