The future is here…or at least I certainly hope not.
With an updated version available on Hulu for our neighbours to the south, the 1990 version of The Handmaid’s Tale is now out on Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack and even though 27 years have passed it still serves as prescient and creepy as it ever was, despite the production problems that surrounded it.
It’s the not so distant future and Kate (Natasha Richardson) a strong-willed and beautiful woman possesses a precious commodity that most women have lost and all men want to control, fertility. After leaving a brain washed boot camp that conditions fertile women to become surrogate mothers for the elite men of the world and their infertile wives, she thinks she has lucked out having ultimately been assigned to a prominent party leader. However when she learns that he is sterile, she’s faced with a truly impossible task, produce him an heir, or die trying!
Pulled from the pages of the novel by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale is a cold and upsetting tale of a future that could easily be all too accurate and thanks to some solid performances and stellar direction this still feels just as relevant today even though the film is 27 years old.
Volker Schlondorff has never been a director who has worked on English language productions all that often, but when he does it’s usually something pretty interesting. He navigates the material with a deft hand as the narrative moves smoothly across the screen, managing to create a rather quaint yet still quite dystopian universe for these characters to exist in. While he never really got a foothold for making films on this side of the pond there is no question that the man’s talent as a storyteller is unquestioned. It’s especially ironic since he came into this film as a director for hire, replacing someone before him. The script from Harold Pinter has a lot of sharp and pointed moments in it even though he has distanced himself from it, Atwood’s tone gets maintained and the use of dialogue is very precise and exacting. It takes place in a time that is socially lost and looking to find its way, it’s subtle in its use of dystopian themes and never tries to go too over the top with it all, allowing our imaginations to fill in most of the blanks. This also allows those truly scary and upsetting moments to be hammered home that much more.
The late Natasha Richardson is operating at or the near the peak of her powers on this one as we see a woman who is forced into obeying and submitting to sex slavery for her very survival. She’s deemed as intelligent and knows how to survive in this world gone mad and when the time calls for it she knows that she has to take action into her own hands, because doing nothing will almost certainly cost her a chance at survival. She brings demur and reserved to the table, but we always see her mind working on a way to ultimately find her freedom. Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway are note perfect opposite her as ‘The Commander’ and his domineering wife who desperately wants a child, not only for him but for herself as well. They bring a dispassionate, cruel and cold temperament to the affair and it adds so many layers to it all as the ultimately hedonistic tendencies of the upper class tend to bite them all in the ass. Aidan Quinn does well as her young lover while Elizabeth McGovern and Victoria Tennant round out the ensemble but it’s anchored by Richardson and her intelligent rage for the world that she has to exist in.
Picture and sound quality on the Blu-Ray are solid yet unremarkable, but sadly the only special feature on this release is the theatrical trailer. It would have been nice to deep dive into this one a little more, but sometimes the material just isn’t all there.
At the end of the day, this version of The Handmaid’s Tale hits all the right notes to send us down a creepy rabbit hole and show us a world that really isn’t all that far off from the one we have now if we aren’t careful and remain vigilant to what is happening around us.