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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 09, 1990

Volker Schlondorff's numbing adaptation of "The Handmaid's Tale" finds the Stepford Wives alive and well and living in the not-too-distantly futuristic Republic of Gilead. While not nearly so blissful as their foremothers, these wives are easily as soulless, so coldblooded they'd take a babe still warm from its mother's womb.

Translating Margaret Atwood's novel, Schlondorff spins a yarn of '80s paranoia into a cautionary fable that by all rights ought to frighten women right out of their Hanes ultra-sheers. Alas, Schlondorff's approach is so dispassionate it fails to prick our secret terrors, much less put runs in our stockings. In a way, he has succeeded too well. Under his austere eye, this portrait of a barren, loveless tomorrow becomes icy as a corpse. Working from Harold Pinter's terse screenplay, Schlondorff seems as uncomfortable in this feminist nightmare as a man in a lingerie department.

Written before PTL was unplugged and the birth dearth had turned into a baby boomlet, "The Handmaid's Tale" is also a touch dated, though it remains an intriguing quilt of what-ifs. Basically it is a story of surrogate motherhood run amok in a society dominated by iron-fisted pulpit thumpers turned fascist militarists. Damned by a "plague" of physical as well as mental sterility, these people must have forgotten artificial insemination, fertility drugs and test-tube babies. Thus, the right-wing ruling classes procreate by proxy.

The fertility statistics in Gilead sound like a recipe for Ivory soap. More than 99 percent of the women have been rendered sterile because of ozone depletion, acid rain, sexually transmitted disease, abortions, toxic ooze and what have you. Those with active wombs are imprisoned in handmaid's nunneries, indoctrinated by dour "aunties" with cattle prods, then sent off to bear the children of powerful Commanders. "Blessed be the fruit" is the handmaid's "Have a nice day."

Natasha Richardson exerts a mute eloquence in the largely passive role of Kate, a librarian, of all things, who is captured trying to escape to Canada with her daughter and husband. Many actresses were said to have turned down the understated role, but Richardson brings a pale rainbow of pent-up emotions, serenity and grief among them, to Kate in her scarlet habit. Stripped of all rights and property and renamed Offred, Kate is given to a taciturn, remotely sexual Commander (Robert Duvall) and his former televangelist spouse, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway in a Wifey Dearest role).

Offred does the grocery shopping but otherwise has little contact with the Commander or Serena Joy. But when she reaches her monthly peak of fertility (closely monitored by lascivious gynecologists), the three engage in a bizarre menage -- a ceremonial rape really -- based on the biblical story of Rachel and her handmaid. If she does not become pregnant after four "ceremonies," she will be judged an "unwoman" and sentenced to clean up toxic waste.

However, even the Commander's wife, who sent several other handmaids to their doom, has come to suspect that her husband is sterile. But a man's world is a man's world, and questioning a Commander's sperm count just isn't done. Things start to look up for Offred when Serena Joy arranges an assignation between the lonely handmaid and Nick (Aidan Quinn), the Commander's fecund chauffeur. "My name is Kate," she whispers in his ear, surprised to find herself aroused and falling in love.

Matters are further complicated when the Commander, using Nick as a go-between, begins seeing Offred alone. Predictably enough, the Commanders and their cronies are hypocrites who still go to nightclubs, drink Tom Collinses, read magazines and gawp at prostitutes in garter belts -- activities abolished by the puritanical establishment.

To his credit, Duvall does win some sympathy for the Commander, a steely fanatic who is henpecked by his wife and kind to the slave women. But Elizabeth McGovern provides the movie's only real pepper as a foxy lesbian, Moira, who despite her "gender crimes" becomes a handmaid. "They don't send you out to detox if your ovaries are still jumping," she explains to Kate during handmaid reeducation. (Savage rites in which the handmaids rip up rapists with their bare hands; fertility prayers; the flaying of feet and plenty of pelvic examinations are among the highlights of the program.)

If the movie stands between good old messy, toxic America and depraved Gilead, blessed be it. But alas, it's unlikely to appeal to the converted, much less bona fide brimstone eaters. And one can't help but wonder why a woman didn't direct this movie about women being dominated by men. "The Handmaid's Tale" is less a reproductive horror story than a blanked-out bodice ripper, another femme fatality.

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