Released by: Shout! Factory
Released on: April 18, 2017
Directed by: Volker Schlöndorff
Cast: Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway, Elizabeth McGovern, Aidan Quinn, Victoria Tennant, Blanche Baker, Traci Lind, Reiner Schöne, Robert D. Raiford, Muse Watson
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In a near post-apocalyptic future, Kate (Natasha Richardson), her husband Luke (Reiner Schöne), and their daughter Jill (Blair Nicole Struble) attempt to cross the border from the Republic of Gilead into Canada. Gilead is comprised of a society that has returned to biblical beliefs, which are now codified into law. The republic has been beset by civil war, and much of the population is sterile. Border guards see the trio and open fire, killing Kate’s husband and taking her and her daughter into captivity. Mother and daughter are separated, and when it’s determined that Kate can have children, she is made a Handmaid, a woman who acts as concubine in place of a woman who cannot give her husband children. Kate is placed in the household of Fred (Robert Duvall) and his wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway), where she’s renamed Offred, signifying her servitude to Fred, a commander in the military. Fred and Serena desperately want a child, and each night, Fred has sex with Offred as his wife holds her hands. When it becomes clear that Fred is probably the sterile one, Serena encourages Offred to have an illicit affair—the punishment is death if discovered—with the commander’s handsome chauffeur, Nick (Aidan Quinn), for whom Offred is already developing feelings. Offred agrees on the condition that she learn her daughter’s whereabouts. Meanwhile, Fred, desperate for a child and falling in love with Offred himself, begins to meet his concubine outside his wife’s presence; he also plies her with gifts, in part believing that doing so will make her more receptive to the joys of pregnancy. Offred does become pregnant, but it’s with Nick’s baby. She and Nick then make plans to escape Fred and Serena forever.
The Handmaid’s Tale is based on a Margaret Atwood novel of the same name, written in 1985. While the film is generally faithful to its source (which is written as Offred’s inner monologue), the story made its fundamentalist Christian villains much more obvious. Under the pretext of restoring order, a religious group murders the president and most of Congress, causing chaos in the United States, which easily allows them to take over and instill military control. Among the new government’s first acts is to take away the rights of women. Not only do women not have control over their own reproductive systems, they are no longer allowed to read or get educations, and they are separated into disparate groups based on their ability to bear children. A startling work of dystopian fiction published at a time when such works weren’t all that popular, The Handmaid’s Tale met with commercial and critical success; in fact, it was nominated for numerous awards and winning several (including the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Governor General’s Award).
It didn’t take long for the book to be optioned by Hollywood, and noted playwright Harold Pinter was hired to write the script. After a bout of exhaustion brought on by heavy work, he didn’t finish it; nor did he like the completed film based only in part on his script. In addition, the original director, Karel Reisz, left the production after shooting began and was replaced; the new director, Volker Schlöndorff, wanted further changes, which Pinter refused to make.
The film received a scant release in the United States and beyond and didn’t come close to making back its production budget in theatrical bookings. That budget came in at $13,000,000, a paltry sum at the time and part of the reason the film doesn’t quite work. There’s no established verisimilitude, with the story, despite its tale of warfare and pollution, looking as if it’s taking place in the house next door. There’s no real sense that a revolution is occurring, or that war and pollution have brought about severe societal changes. There needed to be more establishing shots to create mood and atmosphere, which the film is largely missing. None of the actors can be blamed for this; they give it their all, especially Natasha Richardson and Faye Dunaway, the latter playing a conniving cold fish who sees Offred as alternately a house servant, a sex servant, a confidant, and a competitor for her husband’s affections. There’s little tension, sexual, dramatic, or otherwise. While the film retains the feminist bent of the novel, this live-action take falls flat.
With a new adaptation of Atwood’s tale coming to Hulu (and starring the incomparable Elisabeth Moss) later in April 2017, it seems natural that someone would pick up the original film and release it on Blu-ray. Shout has done that with its Shout Select line. According to the back of the case: “Designed with the film lover in mind, SHOUT SELECT shines a light on films that deserve a spot on your shelf. From acknowledged classics to cult favorites to unheralded gems, SHOUT SELECT celebrates the best in filmmaking, giving these movies the love and attention they deserve.” The Handmaid’s Tale is no doubt one of the “unheralded gems,” which Shout! has opted to release with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p high definition. The film is also presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a BD25. Given the short length of the film (it runs at 109 minutes, relatively short compared to most movies of its ilk, or at least the current ones) and the lack of special features, a BD25 is more than capable of handling the information placed on the disc. The image is an improvement over the 2001 DVD from MGM, with a moderate increase in detail. The detail is sharpest in the greenery of outdoor locations; not so much on actors’ faces or Fred and Serena’s home. Colors look good—particularly the reds and greens of Serena’s garden and the red dresses the Handmaid’s are forced to wear, especially during sequences lit by natural outdoor lighting. Most of the film is brightly lit, but in those few darker scenes, detail fades and grain rises, resulting in mild crush. Speaking of grain, it’s generally well resolved. Overall, this likely won’t wow fans to any great degree, but it certainly shouldn’t disappoint them either, and there’s a lot to like in the visual presentation if one pays attention.
There is one audio option, English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The score is minimal and low key; spoken dialogue drives the film. There are no blemishes, and while the track is limited to two channels, there are no issues to report. Dialogue is clear, easy to both hear and to understand. There are also English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired.
The only extra is the original theatrical trailer, which runs 2:15 and begins with “Once upon a time in the recent future…”
The Final Word:
The Handmaid’s Tale is an interesting if not wholly successful adaptation of a great novel, worth a look for anyone interested in comparing it to its source or to the upcoming Hulu miniseries. The transfer is pretty nice, with good detail, great color, and fine sound.
Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out later this year.