Take away its author's substantial literary gifts, and Margaret Atwood's best-selling The Handmaid's Tale would make an okay Twilight Zone: Its futuristic pop sociology is delivered in just the dire, it-could-happen-here tones that Rod Serling loved. But the people who have made the film version think their message is too important for melodrama. The result is like a dry lecture on World War II atrocities: terrifying in concept, but sketchy and distant in the telling.
It's the day after tomorrow, and fundamentalists have seized control of the U.S. (coyly renamed the Republic of Gilead). Because pollution has rendered 99% of the population sterile, fertile women are forced to serve as handmaids, bearing the rulers' children before being tossed aside. The story focuses on handmaid Natasha Richardson, assigned to Commander (Robert Duvall) and his wife (Faye Dunaway). Will she go along, or will she help the underground movement by killing Duvall? And what about that hunky chauffeur (Aidan Quinn)?
Theatrical misses like this often reveal hidden charms on video. But that's only partly true here. This story needs the pulpy zing that a director like, say, Blue Steel's Kathryn Bigelow might bring to it, but Handmaid's production team is immensely talented, politically correct, and all wrong. German director Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum) fills the screen with vivid but politely static visuals, and playwright Harold Pinter's eloquent Morse code dialogue leaves little for the unseasoned Richardson to flesh out. That's not true of Duvall and Dunaway, both of whom give creepily detailed performances and help make this lecture watchable on video.
For all its reticence, The Handmaid's Tale is little more than a feminist variation on those anticommunist potboilers of the 1950s: We're told this is what will happen if we allow their side to win. However valid the film's point may be, its dour, academic insistence undermines the argument. C-