The difficulty in making a movie about soullessness is not to make a soulless movie. “The Handmaid’s Tale” (selected theaters), based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel about a futuristic America ruled by militant fundamentalists, doesn’t entirely avoid the trap. It’s a beautifully austere piece of work--it’s rare to see a film these days that’s as carefully designed as this one. But the design hasn’t been given enough human contours. It’s as if the film makers had forgotten the raging emotions that all that design and austerity were supposed to repress.
Atwood’s cautionary conceit, which has been adapted by that auteur of austerity Harold Pinter and directed by Volker Schlondorff, is an ingenious confluence of modern paranoias. America has been overthrown by right wing religious fanatics. In the wake of nuclear accidents and pollution and other environmental disasters, all but one in a hundred women are infertile. Potential child-bearers are rounded up, indoctrinated into their new role as breeders, or “handmaidens,” and then assigned to a Commander, or high government official, and required to mate with him at the peak of her monthly fertility.
The copulation ceremony is taken from the Book of Genesis, where Rachel’s handmaiden Bilhah served the same function. If the handmaiden doesn’t become pregnant, she’s banished to outlying work camps to clean up toxic waste along with minorities and non-believers and “gender offenders” (i.e. homosexuals).
The film begins with a family being ambushed by government soldiers during an attempt to escape into Canada. (Atwood is Canadian; her book is an implicit knock at American society.) The husband is shot, the baby daughter is taken away, and the woman (Natasha Richardson), who tests positive for fertility, is sent to a Center and renamed Offred.
The Handmaidens, all dressed in red habits, are lectured into submissiveness by the Aunts, dressed in brown. Assigned to a Commander (Robert Duvall), and his barren wife Serena (Faye Dunaway), who is dressed like all Commander’s wives in blue, Offred settles into the ceremoniousness. But, unlike many of her sister handmaidens, she’s resisted indoctrination. She goes through the motions, but her wariness is palpable.
The color-coded world of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is elegantly spare; it’s a world where the written word, except for the Bible, has been banished and replaced with pictographs and bar codes. The near-abstract design, conceived by artist Jennifer Bartlett, is supposed to clarify the movie’s meanings for us, but it has the effect of holding us at a remove. Atwood had a satirically kicky core to her conceit, but the film doesn’t have enough bite to do it justice. Schlondorff and Pinter are determinedly unfunny.
Atwood was positing the notion that radical feminism and fundamentalism meet in a netherworld of repressiveness. The anti-abortion, anti-pornography universe of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is one in which women are relegated to strictly utilitarian functions: breeders, wives, whores. And all in the name of righteousness. It’s a patriarchal theocracy, but with a feminist fillip--by virtue of their child-bearing capacity, women are dominant in this society. Men are banished from the actual birthings; the punishment for rape has the offender thrown to a crowd of handmaidens and torn apart.
Perhaps one reason the movie seems so cold to the touch is that the film makers don’t have enough feeling for the present to make a convincing cautionary tale about the future. The most successful futuristic fantasies are, of course, really about the here-and-now.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” doesn’t engage us on enough present-tense levels so that we might see the shape of Atwood’s scheme all around us. There should be an inevitability to the vision, but the film seems cooked up from the oddments of pop culture. It’s straining for significance yet there’s a dullness to the landscape.
Despite the fact that Natasha Richardson--who is in almost every scene--is an extremely acute and intelligent actress, Offred never draws us in. There’s no emotional towline to her character. Her fears for her baby’s fate, for example, come to the fore too late in the story, and then they fade away once again. When she experiences the illicit pleasures of lust with the Commander’s chauffeur (Aidan Quinn), Offred should be transported--it ought to be a spiritual awakening as much as a physical one. Instead, it’s at best a revivifying romp.
A few sequences suggest how good the film might have been. The Commander’s huffy copulations with Offred, with the furious Serena stretched out behind her on the bed, scrutinizing her husband’s face for any dread traces of pleasure, are morbidly nutty. When the Commander meets secretly with Offred in his study, they indulge in forbidden acts--paging through old copies of “Vogue,” playing Scrabble. Robert Duvall knows how to show off a martinet’s smarmy side; he’s a whiz at revealing the vulnerability in smarm.
As the chief indoctrinator Aunt in the Center, Victoria Tennant suggests the human being that once inhabited her stiff dictator’s mien. There’s a trace of sadness in her sadism. Faye Dunaway is perhaps best of all. Serena can’t abide her husband’s infidelities, and she throws such a fear into him that she takes over the movie whenever she’s around. It’s a good mystical joke. Even in this most repressive of futureworld patriarchies, it’s the wives who send their men running for cover.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” has the advantage of a gripping premise, and, with futuristic fantasies, sometimes that’s all you need to keep audiences watching. It was true for “The Stepford Wives” and “Fahrenheit 451,” both unsuccessful movies, and it’s true of better films, too, like “Westworld.” But there’s so much oracular rigor in “The Handmaid’s Tale” that you wonder what attracted the film makers to the project. It’s as if the film was made out of a belief that drabness, and not fundamentalism, was the present and future evil. The film makers have capitulated to their own nullity.