Home Video Hovel: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Scott Nye
No, sorry, this isn’t the new prestige show with Elizabeth Moss and some fetching bonnets. Instead, let me take you back to 1990, when an acclaimed director, writer, composer, and cast made a very uninteresting movie. You see Volker Schlöndorff working from a screenplay by Harold Pinter, based on a major novel by Margaret Atwood, with an acclaimed cast (Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Aidan Quinn) headed by one of the most viable young actresses on the scene (Natasha Richardson) and a score by one of the screen’s most interesting composers (Ryuichi Sakamoto) and you think…oh wait a minute, there’s probably a reason this doesn’t get talked about much anymore. There is indeed.
The film begins intriguingly enough, as Kate (Richardson) tries to sneak across some totalitarian-looking border with her husband and daughter, only to be captured (him killed) and sent to a very totalitarian-looking facility that provides all of one’s basic comforts but none of what you really need. There she is tested, and revealed to be fertile, which is kind of good news/bad news, because in this world gone wrong, fertility is a precious commodity, only the women don’t make the sale. They are instead forced to become Handmaids, women who become impregnated by old successful men because their wives are all barren. What with the dystopia and all.
Kate is sent to live and sleep with (and shop for, weirdly – they have regular maids who could be doing that!) The Commander (Duvall) and his wife Serena (Dunaway). There she takes the name Offred, because there have been Offreds before and boy you don’t want to follow in their footsteps. Being given such access to someone who just goes by “Commander” is kind of a blessing and a curse in dystopian fiction, and soon enough, a brewing rebellion comes calling and things start to really take off for Kate.
But boy is this one boring, boring, boring, so dull, so very boring movie about repression and rebellion. Early on, when Kate was not really reacting to much of what she was being put through, I thought, “oh, this is sort of an interesting perspective on how people internalize trauma and just try to get along in the midst of a police state, and as Schlöndorff was born in Germany in 1939, he might have some insight into all that”, and to an extent, I’ll stick by that reading. But there are plenty of ways to make that fear of speaking out more cinematic, none of which really have a lot to do with a series of well-lit master shots, predictable close-ups, and uninspired tracks, all of which certainly falls apart by the time Kate does start trying to put up barriers and resist, which sort of gives lie to any perspective Schlöndorff could be taking on internalizing evil. Kate’s actions just never track from scene to scene, and Richardson either doesn’t have the perspective or the guidance or the surviving footage to navigate her character’s many sudden shifts in mood and outlook. Any read of her character is necessarily outside of what the film gives us, which is next to nothing.
Duvall is slightly more interesting as the eternally-self-justifying moralizing commander, who has very strict ideas about women’s sex lives but almost none for his own. Dunaway manages a few nice moments, and really, good on all three of them for pulling off some odd and ethereal sex scenes, but mostly she is relegated to the predictable state of jealousy with little effort to try to rationalize her position. She could have been the most interesting character, torn between that jealousy and genuinely standing by the system her husband has helped shape, but she’s flimsy and trapped and under-developed.
I haven’t yet watched the Hulu show. I didn’t even know the premise of The Handmaid’s Tale until I watched this movie about a week ago. But one need not have comparison to see a thoroughly neutered premise, especially by the end of this thing, which is so self-defeating and cheaply-wrought that you can literally feel the production running out of money as it goes on.
Despite being released in their “Shout Select” line, which is supposed to be Shout! Factory’s “premiere” line of releases, their new Handmaid’s Tale Blu-ray has zero supplements, but at least the transfer looks quite good. It’s rich and vibrant and quite film-like, with minimal damage and no obvious compression artifacts. The disc’s also retailing for like $21, which is absurd for a movie this bad and a package this thin.