Although it's been criticized for being sterile and unfaithful to its source material, this cautionary tale is actually a pretty smart Orwell-ian update with a feminist twist and a lot of dead-on details. Screenwriter Harold Pinter and director Volker Schlondorff fill The Handmaid's Tale with all sorts of plausible fascist imagery and plenty of moments of paranoid dread. As Kate, the titular baby machine, Natasha Richardson revisits her timorous role in Patty Hearst, expressing normal human emotions like longing and disgust only in tiny snatches, away from prying eyes. Meanwhile, Elizabeth McGovern steals every scene she's in as Moira, a rueful fellow handmaid who frankly announces that she's "a gender traitor -- I like girls" the first time she's introduced. Faye Dunaway and Victoria Tennant both play self-righteous ice queens convincingly, though only Dunaway gets to display any of the (twisted) humanity behind her facade. Meanwhile, Robert Duvall pinches bottoms and acts like any good old boy, albeit one with an army and a religious sect at his beck and call. The romantic subplot between Richardson's character and the sympathetic errand boy played by Aidan Quinn lends a cheesy romance-novel element to the proceedings and results in way too pat of an ending. But The Handmaid's Tale remains compelling because its world is so richly and convincingly rendered. Not exactly light entertainment, the film doesn't provide much visceral horror, either. Instead, it's full of mundane betrayals and everyday hypocrisies -- the kinds that help totalitarian governments rise to power.
by Brian J. Dillard review