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DVD Review

DVD cover

The Handmaid's Tale


Starring: Faye Dunaway, Natasha Richardson, Aidan Quinn and Elizabeth McGovern
Optimum Classic
RRP: £15.99
Certificate: 15
Available 12 February 2008

War and religious fundamentalism have ravaged the once great United States, breaking the former union and leaving the newly formed Christian republic of Gilead under the thralldom of an ultra right Christian government. Sexual practices and pollution have played a part in severely cutting the female populations fertility, leaving only a minority being able to bear children. These women are forcibly co-opted into becoming Handmaidens, breeding sows for the rich and powerful...

The Handmaid’s Tale (1990) was directed by Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum, 1979) from Harold Pinter’s adaptation of Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, first published in 1985. The film won Natasha Richardson an award from the Evening Standard British Film Awards for best actress and a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film, it was also nominated for a Golden Bear at the 1990 Berlin International Film Festival. Music is by Ryuichi Sakamoto who also scored Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.

Dystopian films are nothing new, what is original about both the book and the film is that the effects are shown purely from a female point of view. Kate/Offred (Natasha Richardson) is not someone who grew up in this brave new world. Prior to the collapse of her country she had a job and a family, all of which have been stripped from her, prior to her becoming the chattel of The Commander (Robert Duvall) and his wife Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway).

In a land of substantially infertile women her active ovaries make her both actively prized and a possession of the state. We follow her through the process of becoming a handmaid following her capture trying to flee to Canada with her family, an unsuccessful bid which causes the murder of her husband and the confiscation of her daughter. Her experience in the camps, and the hypocrisy which she witnesses in the commanders social circle, turn her from slave to rebel, requiring an act of violence to gain her eventual release.

Although the film shares themes with some recent releases, its presentation is very much understated - so don’t expect any great special effects. This is a study of character and womens place in society. We follow Kate through processing and training for her new role in society and her eventual acquisition by the Commander, with the script never taking its eye off her as the central voice of the film.

The movie shares many themes with both the experience of the American slaves and the brutality of the Nazi regime. Kate not only looses her daughter and freedom but is assigned a new slave name Offred (of Fred, denoting ownership) and given a metal wrist tag.

Not everyone has given up and there is resistance in the country from Mayday, as well as passive and active resistance from the women themselves and Kate is drawn into the resistance by the experiences of her  friends Ofglens (Blanche Baker) and Moira (Elizabeth McGovern).

The film is universally well acted with Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall stealing the laurels. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with Natasha Richardson's performance except it is a little too understated, which makes her eventual rebellion a little less than convincing, otherwise the film has a great cast, a great script and a director with a good visual eye.

The print is pretty good for a film of this age, thought there is little in the way of extras, only the original theatrical trailer.


Charles Packer

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