Film Reviews:

The Handmaid's Tale

(Volker Schlondorff, US/Ger, 1990)

"Once upon a time in the near future a country went wrong" so begins this intriguing and unconventional American film. A new civil war has fractured the United States of America into several self-contained republics. Vast toxic dead body dumps known as 'the colonies' are indicative of the social decline that grips the citizens. Caught trying to escape one of these republics is mother Kate (Natassja Richardson). Her husband is killed and her daughter lost when she is taken by the state and, having established she is one of the precious few fertile females left, is enrolled on their procreation programme. She is assigned to a Commander in the military and the two regularly have sex so she can get pregnant and give birth to the Commander's progeny who will be brought up to continue the fight for their country.

It sounds like a plot from a sleazy 80s video nasty or a Troma movie, but that couldn't be further from the truth. It's based on the novel by Booker Prize winner Margaret Attwood and the screenplay is by Harold Pinter. First thing of note is the standard of the production - it's chock full of stars. Aside from the aforementioned Ms Richardson, Robert Duvall plays the Commander, Faye Dunaway his wife, Serena Joy, Aidan Quinn the Commander's driver, Elizabeth McGovern as the only friend Kate makes on the procreation programme (and part of an anti-state underground resistance movement), and Victoria Tennant as 'Aunt' Lydia the leader of the programme. With Pinter responsible for the screenplay, it should come as no surprise that the emphasis here is not on the excitement of action and explosions but how quickly mankind resorts to dehumanisation out of need.

German director Volker Schlordoff focuses on the different emotional stresses the war places upon each of the characters and although there remains a air of detachment from the characters throughout, this is entirely in keeping with the world being portrayed; and Schlordoff's refusal to glamorise or make the circumstances more palatable is welcome. Given the desperate situation the republic is in, the state programme of giving birth for the future of their country sounds reasonable enough but in action is little more than institutionalised rape. Jealous of her husband's opportunity to have sex with (what we discover) is his third concubine, Serena insists on being a part of their sessions together resulting in a series of unusual menage a trois. As they spend more time together, the Commander falls in love with Kate, but, in turn she falls for his driver. The tension builds as Serena discovers her husband's feelings and Kate gets a message from the underground resistance telling her that the Commander has been singled out as a target for assassination.

Although sometimes slightly obvious (everything to do with the state is black: storm-troopers in black uniforms and black helmets with black visors who drive black vehicles and carry black guns etc. etc.) there are some nice touches of flair. The Commander takes Kate to a decadent party where alcohol is available, people have fun dancing to music, taking drugs, using prostitutes - in a magnified version of the 'good old days'. Since most of the literature has been burned the Commander keeps illicit copies of Vogue and Cosmopolitan in his safe - like a stash of high quality porn. The symbol of the illuminati subtly crops on everything from the TV broadcasts to the revised Stars and Stripes flag. Despite good performances all round, director Schlondoff fails to get a firm enough grip either on the subject matter or the script. The production comes across more like a TV mini series than a feature film. It's not as sensationalist as it could be, but nor is it as intellectual as it seems to think it is, and consequently falls into a no-mans land somewhere between the two extremes. In both tone and art direction it is remarkably similar to a British mini series of the 80s called The Knights of God which also told of a near future, civil war-torn totalitarian state. As for The Handmaid's Tale, it is a good idea limply executed, though not without its points of interest.

Rob Dyer

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