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THE HANDMAID’S TALE

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, May 12, 2017

EDITOR’S NOTE: Margaret Atwood’s sci-fi thriller has been adapted as a 10-episode series that is now running on Hulu, but there was also a movie version, released just five years after the book’s publication, and that one has just received a Blu-ray upgrade by the Shout! Factory. Here’s my review of the film, which ran in the Deseret News on March 23, 1990.

The problem with big-budget genre films featuring star talent is that often they are made by talented directors who seem to have no understanding of the simple basics of the genre with which they are dealing.

An example that immediately leaps to mind is Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Shining,” starring Jack Nicholson. It’s not the worst horror film in the world but it’s also hardly up to the talent involved.

That also seems to describe “The Handmaid’s Tale,” an effort by director Volker Schlondorff and screenwriter Harold Pinter to adapt Margaret Atwood’s novel to the screen. There are worse science-fiction films around but the talent involved here justifiably builds one’s expectations.

Some may feel the whole notion of the story is wrong-headed with its view of an American society in the “near future” where sterility is so rampant that fertile females are imprisoned and brainwashed to become concubines. Their only function in life is to bear children, and at one point we hear quoted the Old Testament story of Jacob, Rachel and her “handmaid” Bilhah (from Genesis, chapter 30).

     

Robert Duvall, Natasha Richardson, 'The Handmaid's Tale'

So how does an entire society, hot on the heels of the women’s rights movement, become so oppressive toward women? And why is this atmosphere of “1984” so rampant with religious overtones? There is no satisfactory explanation.

Assuming you buy into the premise, there’s still a lot more you must accept on face value. Why, for example, when brainwashing techniques so obviously fail to convert some subjects — such as Natasha Richardson and her best friend (Elizabeth McGovern, as a hard-edged lesbian stereotype) — do they allow them to continue the exercises?

The film follows Richardson, who is “assigned” to the home of a top government official (Robert Duvall) and his wife (Faye Dunaway). Naturally, Dunaway resents Richardson and Duvall lusts after her. But because Duvall’s sexual encounters with Richardson are closely monitored by Dunaway, he steals some private time. And what do Duvall and Richardson do during their moments together? They play Scrabble. Honest!

Later, it is revealed that Duvall may be the sterile one (men are never medically examined for sterilization, it seems) and if Richardson fails to conceive she’ll be in big trouble. Meanwhile, there’s a romantic subplot between Richardson and Duvall’s chauffeur, Aidan Quinn, who may or may not be a part of an underground revolution that’s building up.

     

Natasha Richardson, left, Elizabeth McGovern, 'Handmaid's Tale'

There’s an interesting allegory in here somewhere, but Schlondorff, whose films include the odd but intriguing “Tin Drum,” never finds it. And Pinter’s script, surprisingly, is without any depth or logic. That becomes especially clear when the film’s final quarter turns into a routine thriller and the last scene is an idiotic attempt at a happy-ending wrap-up. Given all that has gone before, this is a particularly sappy idea.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a real mess. The fine cast tries hard but often just looks uncomfortable, especially Duvall. If it’s true he gave up a role in the upcoming “The Godfather, Part III” for this, he has reason to look uncomfortable.

The film is rated R for violence, sex, nudity and profanity.