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Handmaid's Tale, The

Entry updated 19 January 2017. Tagged: Film.

Film (1990). Cinecom/Bioskop. Directed by Volker Schlöndorff. Written by Harold Pinter (1930-2008), based on The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. Cast includes Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Elizabeth McGovern, Aidan Quinn, Natasha Richardson and Victoria Tennant. 108 minutes. Colour.

A near-future USA, some time after a right-wing coup, is now a patriarchal, fundamentalist, totalitarian Dystopia, suppressive of all liberal thought and especially of women, who have no rights at all (see Feminism; Women in SF). The heroine is a "handmaid", one of the few women whose reproductive systems have survived the (very vaguely specified) ravages of chemical pollution and radiation from power-plants. A handmaid's duty is to bear children to important men, conception taking place at ceremonies where she is sandwiched between piously thrusting husband and demure wife; the baby is taken by the wife. This US/German adaptation was perhaps doomed to failure. The believability of Atwood's original novel depends largely on texture, on irony, on the watchful but partially submissive consciousness through which its events are filtered: novels of this kind are notoriously difficult to film. Stripped of this fineness of observation, The Handmaid's Tale's lurid future is so diagrammatic – despite excellent performances – that suspension of disbelief becomes impossible. The most terrifying aspect of the novel, the wounded complicity with which many of its women consent to their own dehumanization, is weakened by making the film's heroine (Richardson) an active revolutionary who finally cuts the throat of her owner, played by Duvall, whose portrayal of nearly unconscious hypocrisy – he sees himself as a kind man – is the best thing in the film. [PN]


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