The Handmaid's Tale Reviews
In the not-too distant future, the United States has fallen and been replaced by the Republic of Gilead. Gilead is a completely theocratic society which has taken advantage of, among other things, the incredible decrease in fertility among women. (Men are not tested.) There are also the dreaded Colonies, a place where unwanted people--mostly women--are sent to clean up what is probably horrific radioactive waste, though I wouldn't be surprised if there were chemical contamination there as well. Many young, fertile women have been rescued from the prospect of the Colonies by the choice to become a Handmaid, a nameless, veiled concubine to a military official whose wife cannot bear her own children. The Handmaids will take their commander's name--Ofglen (Blanche Baker), Ofwarren (Traci Lind, whose character's real name is Janine), and of course Offred (Natasha Richardson, called Kate in the movie and nameless in the book, more on which anon). Offred is brought into the house of a military commander (presumably named Fred and played by Robert Duvall) and his wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway), a former televangelist now with no power of her own, no importance of her own.
So let's talk about that name. In the book, Offred is not entirely a person. She is a past and a present; she has no future that she can imagine. She had a wild, hippy libber mother; okay, I understand why her mother (also nameless) isn't in the movie. They didn't really have time for her--though there could have been a throwaway line in the scene where Aunt Lydia (Victoria Tennant) is showing them scenes of old women's rights rallies. I even understand why her awesome, free-spirited lesbian friend (Moira, played by Elizabeth McGovern), gets reduced in scope to a woman she befriends at the Red Center. That doesn't bother me. But to give Offred a name is to give her the illusion of control over her life. In reality, she has none. Her husband is almost certainly dead. Her child has been taken from her and given to a new family; she is almost certainly being brought up to believe that she was born to them. The Commander can have her sent to the Colonies. Serena Joy can probably have her killed. She has her affair with Nick (Aidan Quinn), but that can bring death to them both. And in case there isn't enough awareness of the tenuous nature of her situation, she gets to watch Janine go crazy. And even if all of that goes smoothly, it means nothing if she doesn't have a child, and it won't matter if it's the Commander's fault and not hers.
Yeah. That's a lot of weight to put on one word. But surely the point of a Handmaid is the surrender of self to the Greater Good. Janine's baby is taken from her scant moments after she is born, and we are assured in the book that Janine will be sent to a new house soon to share her fertility. (It's also pretty strongly implied in the book that Janine "used a doctor." Indeed, it might even have been Janine--it's been a while since I read the book, so I can't remember for sure--who is the one executed for "fornication.") It is said that no Handmaid who has given birth to a healthy baby will ever be declared an "unwoman," but I somehow don't picture an old-Handmaids' home for post-menopausal women. Maybe they'd become Marthas, but I doubt it. Then again, the ending of the book is left uncertain, another thing I thought important about the book that is changed for the movie. Indeed, the main changes that bother me in the movie--even that costume change, really--tend to be issues of hope and empowerment for Offred.
I do actually like the movie. I think it is, with those minor exceptions, the best that can be done with a Hollywood movie. Certainly the best that can be done with a Hollywood movie that's 109 minutes long. The origins of Gilead are left vague, but we don't really need them in order to understand Offred's life. While the setting isn't Margaret Atwood's intended Cambridge (Harvard won't let you film there, for one), it does have the feel I pictured when I read the book. In fact, I hadn't known that she meant it to be Harvard in the first place. The Commander's house is a big, spacious one with broad green lawns and sunny gardens. The Marthas seem to be good housekeepers, for one, and likely to spoil any child Offred can give them, for another. The Gilead presented in the movie seems complete, whatever the other failings.
Incidentally, I wrote this review into backlog. Between the time it was written and the time it was posted, star Natasha Richardson died. She did other things; she did other things I've seen. However, I think that, when I think of her, I will not think of her from [i]Evening[/i], which you know I didn't like. I will not think of her as Liam Neeson's wife, because I didn't know she was. I will think of her as Offred, because she did an excellent job in the role.
The cast makes it interesting at times, but overall a forgettable film.