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The Handmaid's Tale (1990) Fans of Margaret Atwood's celebrated novel about a totalitarian future in which young women are reduced to reproductive slaves-mere birthing tools-may claim that the movie… R Drama Sci-fi and Fantasy Faye Dunaway Robert Duvall Natasha Richardson Volker Schlondorff
Movie Review

The Handmaid's Tale (1990)

MPAA Rating: R

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EW's GRADE
C-

Details Rated: R; Genres: Drama, Sci-fi and Fantasy; With: Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Natasha Richardson and Volker Schlondorff

Fans of Margaret Atwood's celebrated novel about a totalitarian future in which young women are reduced to reproductive slaves-mere birthing tools-may claim that the movie version misses the book's ''texture.'' Yet that would be like griping because pure white isn't as colorful as off-white.

As a book, The Handmaid's Tale was a weirdly stripped-down sci-fi parable in which bitter, barren aristocratic women (taking their cue from Rachel and Jacob in the Bible) hire fertile ''handmaids'' to have ritual, pleasureless intercourse with their husbands. Though Atwood clearly intended her feminist Nineteen Eighty-Four as a howl of rage against the fundamentalist movement and other conservative forces (the influence of which she wildly overestimates), her vision of sexuality in the fascist future is so poisonous and mechanical that you have to wonder: Is this really what our society is threatening to turn into, or is Atwood just exorcising her own fear and loathing?

The movie of The Handmaid's Tale is about as craftsmanly an adaptation as you could hope for. Visually, it's quite striking. Atwood's allegorical color scheme, with the handmaids clad in scarlet frocks (to symbolize their biology- is-destiny enslavement), has a graphic power on screen, and director Volker Schlondorff keeps the surfaces clean and light; each new set looks sterile enough to be an operating theater. In addition, the soulful Natasha Richardson does all she can to turn Atwood's woebegone handmaid into flesh and blood. Yet the character isn't alive here any more than she was on the page.

The Handmaid's Tale is watchable, but it's also paranoid poppycock — just like the book. The actors are imprisoned in Atwood's grimly inhuman design. Faye Dunaway, as the former televangelist who hires Richardson to give her a child, seems to be playing in some Marxist version of Dynasty, and Robert Duvall's hollowly friendly Commander is like a replicant. Only Elizabeth McGovern, as an angry, foul-mouthed lesbian, is allowed to show any life.

What finally takes the cake for absurdity is a subplot featuring Aidan Quinn as Richardson's handsome savior. It's as if Atwood, after all that didactic scrubbing, couldn't quite wash the princess fantasy out of her story. The Handmaid's Tale is a tract that strives for sensitivity- it lacks even the courage of its own misanthropy. C-

Originally posted Mar 09, 1990 Published in issue #4 Mar 09, 1990 Order article reprints