This is a film that has been conveniently forgotten in favour of the recent television adaptation, which came out after Donald Trump took office. People seem to think it’s the first adaptation, but earlier there was this 1990 film based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel and directed by Volker Schlöndorff. It certainly didn’t help that till fairly recently the film was long out of print, but thanks to Fabulous Films we have a Blu-Ray of this curiosity.
In a nutshell, the United States has been overtaken by an extreme patriarchal Christian cult, and the country has been rechristened the Republic of Gilead. Women, but more specifically middle class and poor women, are being rounded up. They basically become sex slaves for privileged couples who can’t conceive children, as the fertility levels in this future are incredibly low for women and possibly men. Natasha Richardson stars as the heroine of the piece, Kate/Offred (in this future women are referred to as being the property of their male owner). She starts planning a way to escape this nightmare.
The film’s script was credited to Harold Pinter, who was an odd choice to write it, but he was very much one of the go-to writers to adapt classic pieces of literature during the ’80s and ’90s. During the ’90s he also wrote the scripts for adaptations of The Remains of the Day, Lolita and The Trial, to name just a few. According to the people who read his original drafts, his scripts were much better than what ended up on the screen. His script for The Handmaid’s Tale was written relatively soon after the book came out, and it was in development hell for a while. Karel Reisz has said that Pinter never fully finished a draft, but that’s debatable. He did, however, tell Schlöndorff to get Atwood to do any rewrites, and they basically did a hodgepodge of Pinter’s script plus Atwood and Schlöndorff’s ideas, I also suspect some studio interference and budget constraints influenced the finished film.
The biggest fault probably lays with the director, Volker Schlöndorff. He is a very fine director and has done political films since the beginning of his career, but he lacked the insight into the genre it needed. It really needed a director who got the science-fiction aspect as well as the political aspect to helm it, the obvious choice would have been somebody like David Cronenberg, who was prepping his dream project of Naked Lunch at the time. He is also Canadian (like Atwood) and has a history of adapting difficult books to the screen: in a twist of fate, his most recent work in front or behind the screen was playing a priest in the adaptation of one of Atwood’s other novels, Alias Grace, for Netflix. Paul Verhoeven probably would’ve got it, or Kathryn Bigelow, who at that point was still making her quirky genre films, having not yet graduated to her more recent Academy fodder.
Despite the mispairing of material and director and obvious budget constraints, The Handmaid’s Tale does succeed in many ways. Natasha Richardson gives easily one of her two best performances—ironically, her other best performance was playing Patty Hearst. Robert Duvall as the commander gives one of his most fear-inducing turns. He actually got obsessed with evangelicalism because of his role, and he then conceived of, directed and starred in the interesting but flawed film The Apostle. Faye Dunaway as the commander’s infertile wife gives one of her better and more chilling late-period performances. Aidan Quinn is terrible as the commander’s chauffeur, who may or may not be on Offred’s side. How on earth he was ever taken seriously as an actor is beyond me.
The film does struggle to get out of looking like an early ’90s television film, but that’s probably just down to the film stock used more than anything. Richardson has put the film’s biggest fault down to Pinter, saying the writer had “something specific against voice-overs.” That is problematic when the book is “so much a one-woman interior monologue.” There is some narration during the ending. However, maybe the story was too ahead of its time (even though it was commenting on the time then), and it had to wait nearly 30 years for an adaptation to find a receptive audience. It is, however, a chilling look at a future which seems very plausible, and the performances from the main three actors are very strong.