Film & Television

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ — Cautionary Tale or Future Imperfect?

Fast forward nearly thirty years and the world of media has changed dramatically. Thanks to digital streaming and subscription services, stories like The Handmaid’s Tale can find a new audience, one that doesn’t shy away from the novel’s sexuality or violence. At the same time, many of the issues that prompted Atwood to write back in the ‘80s are as divisive and explosive as they were then. In short, The Handmaid’s Tale is as horrifyingly relevant as it ever was. As is the new mini-series, produced by and available exclusively on Hulu.

The new series stars the intensely talented Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men’s Peggy) as Offred. Perhaps taking a lesson from the earlier film adaptation, much of the narrative is Offred’s voice-over observations. Her fine and powerful performance — which comprises two main sections:, life as “June,” a normal woman pre-Gilead and life as a handmaid after — not only gives us a heroine worthy of esteem, it provides a lifeline in a world of desperation and despair. As long as Offred can somehow survive, we can continue watching what feels at times unwatchable.

The creative team, led by Bruce Miller, and with Atwood as a consulting producer, has added backstory that disturbs the viewer and sharpens the original material. Scenes of Offred’s past are completely familiar. As rights are systematically stripped away (the U.S. is under martial law and the constitution has been revoked following terrorist attacks in Washington), there is a sense of disbelief — “This can’t be happening” — followed by organized, initially peaceful, acts of protest. In keeping with Atwood’s speculative fiction approach, the situation is utterly realistic and believable, but things go too far. Imagine the January marches I mentioned earlier. Now imagine the police opening fire.

The production values are tremendous, striking just the right balance between a city we recognize and one that has transformed into something completely different. Grocery stores are stocked with generic commodities. Cathedrals and universities are bulldozed. Commanders and their wives live behind locked gates and manicured lawns. And handmaids walk two-by-two in their red robes and white caps along a riverbank where the lifeless bodies of  “gender traitors” and other “deviants” hang as gruesome warning.

Moss is well-matched by an excellent supporting cast. Alexis Bledel (beloved as Rory from Gilmore Girls) is Offred’s companion, the handmaid Ofglen. (In Gilead, handmaids are paired off for their protection  — and encouraged to be government informants if their partner is anything other than compliant.) Ofglen’s journey has been expanded in the series and is an interesting counterpoint to Offred’s, as well as a dramatic condemnation against the ritualized violence committed against girls and women in fundamentalist cultures. Bledel’s work here, like Moss’, is riveting.

Offred’s Comander and his wife are played by Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski. Their manipulation and cruelty, respectively, are palpable. Samira Wiley (the ill-fated Poussey from Orange is the New Black) is also solid as a handmaid and June’s pre-Gilead friend. Max Minghella is Nick, the Commander’s driver who may or may not be a friend; O-T Fagbenie is June’s former husband, Luke. Anne Dowd is “Aunt Lydia,” the sinister head matron of the handmaids, while Atwood herself appears in a cameo as another.

The Handmaid’s Tale includes scenes of tremendous violence, torture, and onscreen executions. Yet one of the scenes I found most frightening was a relatively calm domestic one. It’s a flashback to June’s apartment, prior to the fall of the United States and the rise of Gilead. Women have been forced out of their jobs; they can no own property; and their bank accounts have been seized. Because June is married, all of her assets now belong to her husband. “Don’t worry,” he tells her, “You know I’ll take care of you.” Luke is not a bad guy, but that’s what makes it so chilling. It harkens back to anti-suffrage arguments: ‘Why does a woman need to vote when her husband can vote for her?’ It also reminds me of a different visit to New Orleans, when the genteel (white) docent at an ante-bellum home assured all of us that the family who had lived there were, “Very good to their slaves.”

Atwood’s classic novel, powerfully re-interpreted by Hulu, sends a clear message worth heeding. The erosion of any rights, no matter how seemingly small or insignificant, invariably leads to the erosion of all rights. It’s a timely warning.

The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are available on subscription service Hulu. The remaining seven episodes will be released one per week on Wednesdays. If you don’t have Hulu, you can take advantage of a 30-day free trial by visiting www.hulu.com.

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