Tuesday, May 17, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Handmaid's Tale (1990)

"Once upon a time in the recent future, a country went wrong.  The country was called the Republic of Gilead."

-  The Handmaid's Tale (1990)

In Volker Schlondorff's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale, America has undergone a frightening transformation. In fact, the country isn't even called America any longer, but rather the Republic of Gilead. 

"Gilead" is a name you may recall from the Bible, from Genesis in particular. And this name perfectly reflects the tenor of the dramatic change in this future United States. In this disturbing world, citizens "pledge allegiance to the Bible" and report that the Old Testament is their "only Constitution."

How did a thriving democracy become a restrictive Christian theocracy? 

As the 1990 film describes the process, a small cadre of religious men led a military coup to take-over what they increasingly viewed as a Godless country.  Because wide-spread sterility had set in, these men believed that God had sent America a "plague of barrenness, a desert of infertility." 

God's reasoning, they surmised, was that the Lord didn't approve of abortion, birth control, artificial insemination, test tube babies, or homosexuality.  These men thus usurped control of the United States, relegated minority citizens to death camps, made homosexuality a "gender treachery crime," and greatly curtailed the rights of women, particularly fertile women.

In the future imagined by The Handmaid's Tale (1990), the rich, white elite have gamed the system to consolidate political and personal power. These upstanding "Christian" men stride atop of the society's food chain while their infertile wives are left at home (with ample servants) to pine away for children and motherhood. Meanwhile, these same men can lawfully engage in sex with fertile "handmaids" so as to conceive children. 

Where do these handmaids come from? Well, from anywhere the men can get them, even if the fertile women are already mothers and wives in other, less fortunate families. 

Family values only matter, you see, if it's your family that you value.

"We are weeding out the Godless." 

The Handmaid's Tale focuses on a woman named Kate (Natasha Richardson) who loses her family at a border crossing at Canada and is subsequently indoctrinated into "The Red Center" to serve as a handmaid for Gilead's security chief, The Commander (Robert Duvall).  

At the handmaid training facility, Kate meets Moira (Elizabeth McGovern), a lesbian who is also being re-trained in the new faith as a kind of nun/sexual partner.  At one point, Moira plots an escape from the facility, and Kate helps her.

Meanwhile, the Commander is married to a bitter, loveless woman, ironically named Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway), who longs for children, not so much for personal happiness or fulfillment, but so as to keep up with the Joneses.  

All the wealthy neighbors are becoming mothers you see, and showing off adorable little infants at lovely afternoon garden parties...

Even as Kate attempts to learn what has become of her own biological daughter, she endures state-sanctioned sexual slavery with the Commander. Unfortunately, the Commander is sterile, which means Kate will ultimately be blamed for the failure to conceive a child.  She could be rendered an "un-woman" for her failure, and sent to a work camp.

In this world, you see, it is always the woman's fault when something goes wrong for a man.  Gang-rape victims merely "lead on" their attackers, and those who have had abortions (for any reason...) are widely termed "sluts" and "whores."  Those who accept handmaidens-hip are encouraged at one level. "You're the lucky ones," they are told by their "aunts" (trainers): "You are going to serve God and your country. Amen." 

Yet on another level, the handmaids they are derided as "tramps" by so-called respectable family women. They can never be accepted as fellow human beings because the upper class (infertile) women resent their ability to have children, and their intimacy with their husbands. 

Handmaiden-ship is thus both enslavement and a trap. The women who serve as handmaids are saddled with bright red uniforms; a kind of scarlet letter-styled nun's habit symbolizing their conflicted place in the culture.

When Kate realizes she will face severe punishment -- perhaps even death -- if she fails to conceive a child for the Commander, she makes love to the Commander's driver, Nick (Aidan Quinn), with the full blessing of Serena Joy. Without a choice, Kate then becomes part of a political conspiracy to topple Gilead.  The message here is eminently worth noting: these restrictive "family"-oriented  laws of Gilead only serve to encourage duplicity and treachery, and actually tear families apart rather than bring them together.

In the end, Kate and Nick attempt to flee Gilead and the house of Commander, but not before a night of bloody violence ensues...

"You can give birth for our country."

In brief snippets and in TV footage, images of the U.S. Capitol and flag appear throughout The Handmaid's Tale, a deliberately feminist-minded dystopian vision. 

Seeing those familiar political images, one can detect -- without being overly paranoid about it -- how this 1990 film remains alarmingly  relevant to today's political dialogue, in particular the so-called "War on Women" launched by politicians predominantly on the right side of the spectrum.  

Critic Janet Maslin saw such a world already forming back in 1990:  "Male supremacy, pollution of the planet and the political power of the religious right have all combined to set Ms. Atwood's worst nightmares in motion, and what keeps them moving is her thoroughness and attention to small details."

We have seen this war on women escalated in 2011 on a variety of fronts. There has been a Congressional effort to redefine rape to better protect the rapist, the Tea Party attempt to eliminate government funding for family planning, and even, in South Dakota,  the proposed expansion of the definition of "justifiable homicide" to protect those who murder -- in the name of God, apparently -- abortion providers. 

Cumulatively, these proposals are not about cutting debt, creating employment, or even reducing abortions, but about limiting the freedom of women to control their own bodies

The attempt to redefine and whitewash rape is particularly loathsome, as was the not-intended-to-be-factual-statement by Senator Kyl that "well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does" involves abortion. That self-admitted lie does not acknowledge the abundant good work done by Planned Parenthood regarding cancer screenings for women in poverty, and for women without health care.  You can absolutely hate abortion with every fiber of your being and at the same time still appreciate the work Planned Parenthood does saving women's lives.  Being pro-life means being pro-life in all circumstances, not just for the unborn, right? 

The Handmaid's Tale imaginatively and chillingly speculates about the logical outcome of a world in which such draconian laws and beliefs about women and their bodies ultimately prevail.  Women have become totally subservient to men and to the needs of men in Gilead.  Their bodies, even, have become the playground for men to use and abuse as they see fit.  A handmaid cannot refuse her "owner." And in the sanctified sex act of the handmaid (always begun after a Christian prayer...) the man need not consider the women's pleasure, comfort, or even, actually, consent.  No foreplay is required, either...just ejaculation.  The basis for this new kind of conception is, of course, the Bible, and the story of Rachel and her handmaid.  There's always a religious basis or cover for the laws of Gilead, for the men of the republic to hide behind.

Perhaps the real value and worth in The Handmaid's Tale comes in its depiction of these "morally-upright" men who believe they have done God's work on Earth by creating this theocracy.  As audiences see from the the depiction of the Commander, he is a hypocrite who thrives on instilling fear in the less fortunate.  He keeps forbidden items (like women's magazines) in his office, and frequents a bar where illegal liquor is consumed, and where young women serve as full-time prostitutes. 

For me, this has always been the most important flaw in many of our nation's most prominent right-wing moralizers.  Not that they are anti-abortion in philosophical stance, per se (that's an individual moral decision I would never judge), but that they are, by-and-large, flaming hypocrites. Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde and Bob Livingston all wanted to prosecute President Clinton for his marital infidelities when they, in fact, were guilty of conducting the same infidelities.  Yes...the infidelty is certainly wrong, but what's  far worse is the hypocrisy concerning it.

The list could go on and on.  David Vitter. John Ensign. Larry Craig. Mark Foley. Jimmy Swaggart. Ted Haggard.  All of these men loudly and self-righteously preached traditional morality while, in secret, flaunting it.  To me, this is a crime much worse than a mistake in judgment and having an extra-marital affair (and asking for forgiveness). 

In the film, the Commander is of the same stripe. He rails against "all those people on welfare," against "the homos" and "the blacks" and the "pressure groups" who were in control of Congress.  But look closely at this man: wallowing in drink, prostitution, and state-sanctioned sexual slavery. 

Like so many of the real-life public figures listed above, the Commander's problem is not his personal belief or value system, it's his total and complete hypocrisy regarding it.   While claiming to be a Christian, he clearly doesn't remember the message of Matthew 7:5 "first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."

The Handmaid's Tale is very powerful in detailing the effect of a theocracy on women's rights, and in acknowledging the hypocrisy of so many self-stated "moral guardians" in our midst. 

Unfortunately, except for a few relatively powerful scenes (like the three-way, religious-minded sex act between Duvall, Richardson and Dunaway), The Handmaid's Tale is not a particularly engaging or artistically-rendered film. 

Although Harold Pinter contributed the script, it was largely re-written, over his objections.  Too often the film feels numb and remote, and the character of Kate (Offred in the novel) is an enigmatic, almost inscrutable character.  Before her untimely death, Richardson went on record noting that she would have preferred for the film to include a voice-over narration by Kate that could explain much of what she was feeling and going through during her trials.  Without that guide, it's not always clear in the film why Kate makes the decisions she does at the times she does.    Roger Ebert wrote of the film that "for all of its anger, "The Handmaid's Tale" is curiously muted. Richardson's passivity was effective in "The Patty Hearst Story," where it was required. Here it is a distraction; the role requires someone with a higher energy level."

The lackluster, almost dull, cable-TV-styled presentation of a thought-provoking story renders The Handmaid's Tale stale and uninvolving on a gut, emotional level.  On a cerebral level, one can detect how the details of the story dovetail uncomfortably with contemporary reality, but beyond that recognition, the movie plays, uncomfortably at times, like a burgeoning Victorian romance between Nick and Kate. 

Or as the Washington Post's Rita Kempley described it, as "less a reproductive horror story than a blanked-out bodice ripper, another femme fatality."

I mean, there's clearly a mixed message here.  Kate is ultimately "rescued" by Nick, also a man -- to whom she is apparently in full romantic thrall. And then, in the film's finale, she spends her time locked in a trailer outside Gilead, again a kind of kept woman.    Perhaps that's the film's very point; that even outside Gilead, Kate -- as a woman -- will never have control over her own destiny.

But I just wish the movie played that poignant final note with a little more oomph and conviction before fading to black.  This is supposed to be the Handmaid's tale.  The very title of the piece promises a personal viewpoint, and so the audience wants to feel and understand what Kate goes through, not merely observe life in Gilead passively, and from some safe distance. 


  1. Anonymous7:09 AM

    Nice review John, I enjoyed it much more than the actual movie. -rc

  2. Thanks, Rick.

    Yeah, the movie is sort of underwhelming, despite the fascinating set-up and background from the novel. I'm not generally in favor of remakes, but the original novel could be adapted better.


  3. Hello John,

    I concur with RC. Your write-up is a terrific read and much better than the film deserves probably.

    I remember seeing this film in theatres. It had to be out for like a week and I'm not sure what got me there. It was the strangest movie and my youthful sensibilities we're at one bored, underwhelmed, weirded out and just generally disappointed.

    It was such an odd movie and it felt that way. I felt so empty after seeing the film and that was before I had formed a full appreciation for Robert Duvall. What a shame Natasha is gone. She was a beauty, but this was just wholly strange stuff.

    I remember the sex scene most. It was so unusual to me it troubled me.

    It certainly could have been an entertaining premise but it ultimately left me pretty cold. Fortunately, as odd a take on the future as it is, it's one that is conceivable [pun intended] on some level, but it seems the most unlikely as premises go.

    Anyhow, I found it weird and warped as films go. I suppose on some level the film worked to affect me with its story, but it was uncomfortable viewing and again mostly slow when I saw it back in the day. Your Ebert bite was a good selection from his review clearly.

    I think your point about "limiting the freedom of women" always makes for great political debate and conversation, and I don't entirely disagree with you. But spending cuts across the board feel necessary if this country is to survive. I don't think people fully realize just how bad it is or could get. We're going to find out.

    This is perhaps one of the best realizations of a left-wing nightmare. You make some great points and I agree with you John about the hypocrisy. I wish both side could see it, but they refuse to relent to the other. IT's extremely unhealthy. Truth certainly doesn't seem to speak for itself and that's the saddest fact of all.

    I loved your final point about the title of the film.

    But yes, a strangely chilling film that was really hard to enjoy.

    All the best

  4. Hi JKM;

    I actually really liked this movie and its alienated tone. I don't re-visit it, but it did make an impression and I think about it whenever I read about the Biblical Patriarchy movement or the Right-Wing "Christian" strategy of fifth-column infiltration of school boards and the US military.

    On the subject of hypocrisy, I challenge all Christians to count the number of times Jesus yells "Hypocrite!" or otherwise uses the term or a variant in the Gospels, and then compare that to the number of times he mentions abortion or homosexuality (or for that matter supply-side economics). He does take a stern stand against infidelity, though - sorry, Newt, Ahnold, etc.

    I do agree with the Fanatic above that we need serious spending cuts but would note this doesn't mean the mainstream Republican approaches are correct (in fact they push the costs of social iniquities down to states, which then in turn delegate them to towns and cities). The Congressional Progressive Caucus, Ralph Nader, Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich have all proposed strong budget-cutting, social-network strengthening ideas from the left (single-payer actually saves money overall, BTW). I do support a return to Ike-era tax rates, too - if the problem is that serious, I don't see why everyone doesn't. The economy was pretty good in those days. (So was Sci-Fi!)

  5. Ah, what an intersting film is would have been had someone like David Cronenberg or maybe Atom Egoyan had taken a stab at it.

    The book is excellent and presents a very chilling futureworld. I remember being haunted by it weeks after reading it.

    I agree with you that the film could've been much better and deserves another cinematic adaptation. I would be interested to see a female filmmaker's take on the material. Someone like Jane Campion or Lynne Ramsey.

  6. Hi everybody,

    Terrific comments all around.

    SFF: I agree with just about everything you said. The Handmaid's Tale, for all the incipient weirdness and passivity, does linger in the memory...especially that odd sex scene. I think it's because the story and ideas are powerful, even if the presentation could have been better.

    I don't disagree with you about spending and tightening our financial belt (nationally-speaking). I just think there are a whole lot of things we could target before we have to cut health care and screenings for poor women. I know a little pain has to go around, I just hate to see that the Republican plan puts all the pain on those already suffering: the poor.

    DLR: I think you are picking up on the same disturbing vibe that SFF mentioned, and yes, it is there in the movie. The alienated tone, as you call it, is definitely present, but I just feel the movie is almost too laidback; and the touches of traditional romance, in this setting, almost absurd.

    But like I said above, I think the debt problem is serious, but that there must be compromise. Defense cuts. A tax hike to the Clinton Era levels, at least, if not the Ike ones (though that would solve the problem...), coupled with some smart spending cuts would do the trick, I think. I know we can do it, but everyone has to give something. I just prefer the hardship fall on those who can better deal with it, and it just is not the poor.

    J.D. Yes, the book haunted me as well. It's still a powerful read, and I think your suggestions of Jane Campion and Atom Egoyan, are perfect!

    Thanks for all the thoughtful and insightful comments!


  7. I can't add much to the already adept commentary offered to the fine analysis of this film. Not having read the novel this is based on, I think it's a somewhat flawed film adaptation to a very intriguing premise. It does seem that religious fundamentalism, no matter whose religion, is male-dominated and ultimately seeks to control women. The perceived threat of their sexuality and genesis ability also has a hand in the matter, IMO. I've grown to believe that if men could have children, birth control wouldn't just be an option, it'd be constitutional law. Another angle of hypocrisy, me thinks.

    Everyone notes "... the three-way, religious-minded sex act" as a powerful scene. I'll note the other that caught me in this film. The criminal male thrown to the females for punishment scene is particularly chilling. In some cultures, having a woman as the tormenter is seen as the worst possible outcome for any man. Anyway, another keen look at the context of a fascinating dystopian work, John. Thanks.

  8. Hi Le0pard13:

    Excellent insights on the film. I appreciate you excavating that second level of hypocrisy here, namely that of the men involved. Birth control would be constitutional law, just as you say, if men could get pregnant.

    Also, I'm glad you called attention to the scene in which the criminal (really a political activist...) is thrown to the lions...the Handmaids. You're right to remember that scene's power. All the anger the handmaids must feel is released and they descend on their enemy like wolves.

    Great comment!


  9. Many of my issues with the film come directly from the source material - in part, THE HANDMAID'S TALE is a strangely dispassionate book, but it has a tendency toward romance-novel bodice ripping. That stuff is definitely in the source.

    I've always felt that a better (if more pulpy) treatment of the same material was in andrew j. offut's book EVIL IS LIVE SPELLED BACKWARD.

  10. Hi thedarkbackward,

    I think you're right that some elements of the film that seem rathr problematic are also in the book.

    Yet, somehow, the book feels more powerful, perhaps just because of the nature of the medium. You feel more "inside" of that literary world, if that makes sense.

    I haven't read EVIL IS LIVE SPELLED BACKWARD, but I'm interested...


  11. Awesome review. I really enjoyed your huge blog post. It really change my mind set and so I had decided to watch movie online. I will watch full movie later when I got time.


Buck Rogers: "The Satyr"

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