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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 09, 1990

If you can suspend believability in "The Handmaid's Tale" -- and with recognizable, present-day faces Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway, Natasha Richardson, Elizabeth McGovern and Aidan Quinn performing in a setting described as "Once upon a time in the recent future," that could prove initially difficult -- then this grim foretelling of state-organized selective breeding, religious fervor and female subjugation becomes quite absorbing.

German director Volker Schloendorff (working in a foreign language) and screenwriter Harold Pinter scoop the surface aspects of Margaret Atwood's novel carefully, but leave her darker implications about abortion, fundamentalist-type beliefs and individual freedoms swinging in a facile, finger-wagging wind. Cinematographer Igor Luther also doesn't help subtle matters by creating (at least, at first) a fogged look, telling us with a little too much emphasis that this is an otherwordly bad dream.

Yet, once you get pulled into this movie, "Handmaid's Tale" does turn out to be an otherworldly bad dream, with a time-delayed effect that hangs with you for days afterward, rapidly improving -- or alarming -- with age.

Much of that effect can be traced to Natasha Richardson, the accomplished daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and British director Tony Richardson. As handmaid Offred, an incarcerated surrogate mother caught in this biblically crazed revolution, she provides the movie with a credible base of reference, imbuing just the right combination of frailty and emotional self-protection, frozen horror and dawning rebelliousness.

In this world, the combined effects of human-caused pollution have caused a veritable apocalypse on Caucasians; only one out of 100 women can bear children. So when Offred (her original name is Kate) is arrested for trying to cross the border of the repressive Republic of Gilead, she's pressed into national maternal service in a fertility station, where other handmaids (including soon-to-be ally McGovern) are indoctrinated and impregnated regularly amid a regime of quasi-fundamentalist utterances and prayers for womb fecundity.

Offred, whose husband was killed and whose daughter was feared lost at the border, must become a surrogate mother for Duvall, a starchy security commandant, and his infertile, former-televangelist wife, Dunaway. It soon becomes apparent to Offred that she has to deliver or die, whether the reproductive problem's on her side or not.

But the finale isn't quite as chillingly nerve-wracking as one would hope. Schloendorff, who also made "The Tin Drum," directs with a uniform dullness that creates little sense of suspense. In replaying the Atwood novel, he and Pinter ultimately fail to create a significant timbre of their own to make the transmogrification truly effective. What remains afterward is the sense of menace, the threat of this world, made credible by handmaids Richardson and McGovern, whose sufferings even in the face of such directorial failings seem eerily real.

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