Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A-Z Movies, H: "The Handmaid's Tale"

Recommended by:
Rae (friend)

Movie Stats:
Released 1990 (West Germany)
American & German, in English
Director - Volker Schloendorff
Stars - Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Aidan Quinn

Plot Summary:
In a dystopian future where pollution has rendered most women infertile, religious conservatives have overtaken the country, “cleansing” it of evils and forcing the few remaining fertile women to reproduce. Fertile Kate (Richardson) is captured while trying to escape the country and is eventually placed with a couple, Serena Joy (Dunaway) and the Commander (Duvall), who want her to bear a child for them. Quinn co-stars as the Commander’s right-hand man, Nick.

Blue language; offscreen torture; violence; rape; forced pregnancy; consensual sexy times; and female nudity (breasts only).

Bad Stuff:
I’m giving the idea that pollution could cause infertility in most, but not all, women (like a person could have an “immunity” to pollution) a serious side-eye. I’d rather the story give a more believable “we still haven’t figured out what’s causing the infertility” explanation than some explanation that makes me snort and go, “oh, BS.”

It dragged on a bit, especially toward the beginning, which made it seem way longer than it was.

I didn’t buy the love story between Kate and Nick AT ALL. A few shared glances without conversation and then they’re suddenly in love? What, because they’re both young and reasonably attractive? Okay then. I’m going to assume that this relationship is much better established in the book.

Good Stuff:
I loved that it showcased the hypocrisy of people who “moralize.” In this future, motherhood and babies are fetishized. At the same time, the women who can have babies are denied the opportunity to raise them and if they take any pleasure in making those babies they are deemed “whores.” The men in control have “cleansed” the country of “bad people” (in the Commander’s words, “blacks and homos”) but behind the scenes they run their own brothel, drink, smoke, and keep contraband. None of it was surprising to me. I kept thinking, “Yep, that seems about right.” It felt very realistic.

It also felt uncomfortably prescient. The book came out in 1985; the movie in 1990. At that time in the U.S., while abortion and birth control rights were hotly debated, they were still firmly in place. In the ensuing years, access to abortion has been greatly diminished in many states, and in some cases so has access to birth control. I’m not saying that there’s a conspiracy afoot to force women to have babies, I’m just saying that the idea doesn’t seem all that far-fetched anymore, especially since there’s rhetoric in this movie similar to what I’ve heard coming out of some politicians’ mouths in recent years. I think it’s a good thing when movies (and books and TV shows) help us examine such issues, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

The Verdict:
First, let me tell you that it was ridiculously difficult to get my hands on a copy of this film. It’s not even available for rent/purchase on iTunes, which I thought was weird. At any rate, I really thought I was going to hate it* and was pleasantly surprised to discover how much I liked it. The acting is so-so but the story itself is pretty interesting. I found it both provocative and timely. I wouldn’t say that it’s an especially fun watch, but sometimes it’s good to watch a film that makes you squirm in your seat and have a serious think.

I give it 4 stars. 

*The reason I thought this is because when it first came out, I saw an episode of Oprah where she gave some audience members free tickets to it and then asked them to come back and review it for the rest of the audience. They HATED it. Every time I’ve heard a reference to this book/film since then, that’s all I could think of.


Patricia said...

I loved this book, and had only heard that the movie was horrible, so I've never watched it. It's been close to 20 years since I've read the book, and I don't recall a romance, though there may have been one.

What I do remember very clearly from the book is the main character described when everything changed. The police came to her work and ordered all the women home and it was only as she was gathering her things that she realized it was a different kind of police.

Where did you finally track down the movie? I just checked the library and they don't carry it.

balyien said...

They don't show the change at all in the movie. It starts out with the religious nuts already in charge, and they only make brief allusions to Kate's life beforehand.

I wonder if there wasn't a romance in the book and they shoehorned it in for the movie? That would make more sense as to why it fell a bit flat.