The Handmaid’s Tale is a powerful dystopian movie about a world gone terribly wrong. The plot is set in the near-future USA which is engulfed in a civil war. Out of the ashes of the past democracy, a new state named the Republic of Gilead is born.

Review by SAndman
July 1, 2009

Director: Volker Schlöndorff

novel: Margaret Atwood
screenplay: Harold Pinter

Natasha Richardson as Kate / Offred
Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy
Aidan Quinn as Nick
Robert Duvall as Commander
Elizabeth McGovern as Moira
Victoria Tennant as Aunt Lydia

Released: 1990

Evening prayer: “Oh, God, make us fruitful. Mortify my flesh that I may be multiplied.”

The movie depicts the hardships of the thirty-something old heroine Kate, or Offred (her handmaid’s name), who lost a family in an attempt to flee across the border and who was taken to a religious boot camp where she was initiated into the mysteries of the so-called Handmaid’s cult.

The cult is a mix of fundamentalist Christianity, populist state-worship, misogyny perpetrated on women by other women, and violence. The cult was created for one purpose alone: to train young and healthy women to bear children to state officials.

The biggest problem the republic and the rest of the country are facing is general infertility brought on by a number of factors ranging from a series of environmental disasters, causing heavy pollution, too, as the cult’s priests insist, widespread depravity.

As the rationale for the cult’s existence religion slanted founders of the Republic referred to the passage from the Old Testament in which Jacob’s wife Rachel insists that he sleep with their handmaid Bilhah and have a baby with her, and when the child is born Rachel and Jacob will take it away from Bilhah and raise it as their own.

After a brief but difficult time at the camp, which looks like something between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Full Metal Jacket, add to that endless streams of religious rant and public displays of state worship, Kate/Offred finishes her education and goes on to become a handmaid to a high-echelon government official who goes by Commander.

Commander is married to a former media star Serena Joy, a cold and haughty woman whose mind is totally bent to commander’s will, so much so that she willingly undergoes the humiliating ritual which makes the very foundation of the Handmaid’s cult.

The Handmaid's Tale Movie Review
The Handmaid’s Tale Movie Review

Though Serena comes across as totally submissive she does display the odd instance of independence and initiative, especially when after a few months it becomes clear that Kate won’t get pregnant by Commander. At that moment Serena decides to take the matters into her hands and approaches Kate with an unusual offer.

Honestly, the Republic of Gilead has to be the sorriest place on earth. On the surface, the country looks safe from terrorists and civil unrest, unlike the outside world, as media keep reminding the citizens.

However, rations, roadblocks, barbed wire fences, and watchtowers are just a few of the highlights of life in the Republic. Also, women are separated from their families, rounded up and sent to camps, after which they have to undergo the handmaid’s training, on condition they are designated as capable of breeding, of course.

There is caste-like social stratification accentuated by different colors of the uniform. Everybody in the republic wears a uniform, and the color scheme varies according to the position in the republic’s hierarchy, black for state officials and their drivers, green for soldiers, or Angels, as they are called in the movie, blue for Wives, brown for Aunts, red for Handmaids, and so on.

Interestingly enough, the executive and empowering roles, such as soldiers and officials are occupied by men exclusively, whereas women are meant for strictly inferior roles, such as your basic breeders and nurturers, or simply handmaids and wives with a few more or less nuanced social functions.

As in many dystopian movies, there is an irony here: those who set out to build a perfect society and improve human beings by delivering them from baser instincts or free will wound up creating a new kind of slavery.

In this movie, slavery takes on a form of gender oppression rationalized by the so-called “traditional values”: strict morals, patriarchal style family unit, men raised for state office and war, women for motherhood, or breeding.

If this sounds like fascism to you, you are absolutely right. This is the ultimate form of fascism with a difference – this is a totalitarian regime combined with religious fundamentalism, or rather a military-run theocracy based on rigid gender roles in which the Old Testament’s concept of god meets state worship.

At one point in the movie, the Commander gives a short timeline of events. The scene also offers up a rare glimpse into the mindset of one of the authors of the experiment in social engineering depicted in the movie.

In his view, it was all for the betterment of mankind. Republic of Gilead, camps, handmaids, and the rest, were introduced by a few noble souls who had only the best of intentions on their minds.

As he puts it, with a chilling intensity of a true fanatic, before the rise of the Republic men and women alike did not feel anything. They led loose, wanton lives, and no wonder the end result was the epidemic of infertility.

However, we learn soon that is only part of the truth as we come to witness strange evidence of moral decay eating away at the very heart of the Republic.

Handmaid’s Tale is based on the eponymous novel by Margaret Atwood. It differs considerably from the book, but the essence of the story, the pitiable human condition, and repression perpetrated by the few in the name of a higher good, as well as the fundamental wrongness of it, is captured masterfully by the movie.

Another thing the movie excels at is reminding the viewer of the unprecedented ingenuity we humans will employ in order to subjugate other human beings which are equaled only by the downright satanic duplicity we resort to in order to justify even the most reprehensible actions.

However, the Handmaid’s Tale, though cautionary and unsettling in its conclusions, is not just another fashionable exercise in nihilism. Quite the opposite, it is a testament to human defiance and unwillingness to accept the argument that a way to happiness and justice lies through conformity and control.

It is a movie that resonates with the universal message that nothing, no cause or idea, no matter how great and noble, trumps personal freedom. Handmaid’s Tale is a movie filled with a profound belief in human dignity.


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