Volker Schlondorff is the director of this excellent movie. He does a commendable job in portraying the story that was so superbly told in Margaret Atwood's novel of the same name. In many respects, it is the exact story of the plot, and in many ways it is simply the visualization of Atwood's novel itself. The details and even the tone itself is a copy of the novel. It is an excellent film with brilliant performances.
Basically, the movie is about a time during the ending of this century. The United States has been renamed "Gilead." There are now certain elites that have taken complete control of society. Racist religious zealots and male supremacists are in charge. This is, therefore, very much a feminist warning to the society. In the movie, we see that women have been segregated to subordinate positions. They know their place, which is to be slaves to the state. The few women who are still fertile are forcibly recruited to bear children for the elite of society. In other words, this is the story of the ultimate exploitation of women.
The movie star Natasha Richardson, plays a strong performance as Kate. The movie is sharply focused on this widowed female prisoner who has lost her own child and has been ordered to conceive a baby with the elite Commander. This commander is played by Robert Duvall, who vividly projects the evils of sexism. He does an excellent job in the calling. The commander's wife, Serena Joy (played by Faye Dunaway) is a former televangelist who is ferociously envious of Kate. Not surprisingly, this movie is an attack on the religious right and male supremacy in general.
If a viewer has read the novel, he/she will be very pleased with the remaking of all of the specific details. For instance, there is the high-school gymnasium, where the elites begin their process of socially imposing certain values and structures. They are now engaged in social engineering and trying to create their perfect world. It is here that these elites begin to confine and brainwash the few fertile women are available to the society.
The movie also reveals the Commander's house, which is filled with folk art and flowers just like in the novel. The house is also surrounded by roadblocks and searchlights. And then, as already mentioned, there is "Offred" -- who was at one time Kate. She is dressed in her handmaid's uniform and she is enslaved for the purposes of the state. She is forced to serve as the Commander's childbearing concubine. This is being done in the name of utopia, and yet we see that this Offred is a victim of the greatest abuse. Here we see the extreme possibility of the objectification and exploitation of women. We see that reproduction has been grabbed by the power of the state and is now exploited by elites.
In the novel, this entire phenomenon was surreal. Indeed, it appeared that the circumstances were simply too bizarre to even take seriously. One was never sure whether the novel was being serious or whether, to some extent, it was caricaturing the situation. Indeed, was it a satire making a caricature of itself, or was it serious? The movie is the same. In some instances, one isn't sure if it is not comedy, because some of the situations are simply so incredulous that one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. But then, just like in the novel, the movie ends up to be extremely serious, for we see that there really is the potential for such barbarity in our society. The human race, after all, is capable of anything. Thus, to a very great extent, this is a remarkable achievement, since the viewer is kept intrigued as to the seriousness of the theme. To have carried off such a theme on the screen takes a lot of talent, for the screen is a much different vehicle than a novel. Schlondorff, therefore, must be highly praised, as should the screenwriter, Harold Pinter.
In many respects, this is a very unpleasant movie, but that is what it is meant to be. One cannot confuse emotional incapacity with artistic criticism. The very fact that one is disturbed means that the movie achieved its effectiveness. It is very frightening, especially since we see how normal human relations can be totally poisoned by the state. Indeed, the very human act of giving and receiving is completely hijacked and distorted by the state in this instance. In many respects, this is Atwood's main theme, as she tries to show that giving and receiving pleasure in humanity must remain an individual right.
In many respects, if one had read the novel, one can tell a very interesting difference between the novel and the movie, but it says something positive about both. The novel was written by a feminist for feminists. It was targetted at a female audience and it was done with much irony and sophistication. The movie, meanwhile, targets a bigger audience, which includes men as well. It also intends to entertain rather than just politicize. The movie seeks to do a boarder number of things than simply just make a feminist message. In this way there are different effects in the movie than in the novel. It some ways, the irony is lost in the film, because one could argue that it simply hits you too hard in order for you to understand things for yourself.
Overall, the movie is fascinating in its detail. The beleaguered heroine's only allies are the guard, who is enlisted to hurry along her pregnancy. There is also the gender "traitor" (Elizabeth McGovern), who is condemned to whoredom. This is so because she admits that she likes girls. Victoria Tennant, meanwhile, plays Aunt Lydia. She is the mean and sarcastic blonde supervisor of all of the handmaids.
While Richardson's character initially seems to be a passive victim, yet she shows ferocity when her moment of bloody vengeance finally comes. Indeed, we see her as a victim, and yet we also see that she is a survivor who is still yet willing to fight for her self-respect.
There is a certain eroticism in this film, even though it is about something very scary. There is also much intelligence and intensity to the script. True, it is a very politically pessimistic movie. More than anything, this film evokes something beyond what's in front of the viewer's eyes. It is about something very serious, and it says something about our own society today. The movie is an extreme, but in some ways the grain of truth in the movie exists today. Even at the present moment, one could argue that many women are no better off than the exploited women in the film.
Indeed Kate is the young woman who becomes the joyless sperm receptacle for the Commander. But how many women find themselves trapped in this situation today? In some ways one could argue that there is still free choice in this society, but it could also be argued that socially imposed structures have made women believe they have choice, when in fact there is only the negation of choice. It is not a surprise, therefore, that Kate is the character with whom Margaret Atwood identified herself. There is a very strong feminist statement here.
Overall, Schlondorff has done a superb job in directing the movie. It would be interesting to know what Atwood thought of it, but one could guess that she would have been pleased. The novel is given much respect, since the movie tries to be a straight imitation of it. The political message is the same, and the overall aura of the movie is the same as the novel.
In many ways, the viewer understands that this is the world of fantasy. After all, it is already the end of the century and "Gilead" has not come around. And yet we must really ask ourselves: are women really free and do we live in a real democracy? One could argue that there are certain elites in power today and that we simply do not know it in a direct sense. In the movie, the power is clear. Today, one could make the contention that those who rule do so in a subtle way. They are able to stay in control because they have instilled a certain false consciousness on the population. Thus, people think they are free when they are really not.
Atwood made an important point about warning society about the danger of racist religious zealots and male supremacists. In many respects, these are the greatest perpetrators in our society today. Women and coloured minorities are victims in this society, and yet the oppressors remain hidden, pretending that they are allowing equality of opportunity. That is why this movie is so important, since it makes an important statement, even though it does so through an extreme visualized manner.
One could legitimately ask: do not women today, to a certain degree, forcibly bear children for society? Are women really "free" within the institution of the nuclear family and within the confines of the patriarchal world? How could women really be free if our society is truly run today by individuals like the commander in the movie?
Sexism is a danger to our society. That is what the movie and novel The Handmaid's Tale tells us. The religious right and male supremacy are the underpinnings of sexism. What society must do, therefore, is educate itself about these violators of women's rights. It is through education that we can prevent such a society, as portrayed in this movie, to stop becoming reality.
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