The Handmaid's Tale review: 'It succeeds spectacularly on every level'
When Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, it was rightly hailed as a masterpiece of speculative fiction (Atwood has always rejected the label “science fiction” and didn’t hide her displeasure when her book was given the inaugural Arthur C Clarke Award) as well as a major work of feminist literature.
Its portrait of a future America, now called the Republic of Gilead, in which democracy has been overthrown by a totalitarian, Christian fundamentalist theocracy and women have been subjugated by the ruling patriarchy was chillingly well-drawn.
Thirty-two years ago, though, it still felt comfortingly far-fetched. You could lose yourself in this nightmarish vision of a new puritanism, but the nightmare ended once you closed the covers and returned to dependable reality.
Atwood imagines a terrifying world where women are enslaved, stripped of their most basic human rights (including their names and identities), corralled into social classes, forbidden to read and casually raped, mutilated and executed.
Those who “transgress” – gay people, for instance, or doctors who perform abortions – are either banished to the colonies, where they’re doomed to a slow, painful death processing toxic waste, or hanged and put on display at a wall in the city square.
Pollution and sexually transmitted diseases have decimated female fertility and drastically reduced the birthrate, so women still capable of bearing children are forced to become handmaids – “breeding stock” whose sole purpose is to bear children for the barren wives of their ruling male masters.
Clothed in long red dresses and white bonnets that hide their faces, the handmaids spend their days in their sparsely decorated rooms, venturing out only to run errands.
On “ceremonial nights”, a handmaid’s job is to lie passive and emotionless, her head resting in her mistress’s lap, mechanically copulating with the masters. It’s rape as a grotesque parody of lovemaking.
As present-day America lurches ever deeper into conservatism and repression under the chaotic leadership of a sexist narcissist whose inner circle is packed with bigots, homophobes and creationists seemingly intent on waging war on liberal democracy, Atwood’s cautionary tale of a future ruled by Old Testament-inspired religious and social fanaticism has taken on a frightening new relevance.
So this magnificent new adaptation (there was a misguided 1990 film version) couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune time. It succeeds spectacularly on every level.
One of the problems in adapting the book is that long stretches of it are the interior monologue of handmaid Offred (it literally means “of Fred”, the name of her master), played here by Elizabeth Moss, who is just terrific.
The series gets around this by the simple expedient of a voice-over, an old, often misused device that in this case works brilliantly, serving to fill us in on everyday life in Gilead, where the mundane, such as trips to the market to buy groceries, sits side-by-side with the horrific – the claustrophobic coupling scene involving Offred, her master (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife (Yvonne Strahovski).
Drenched in sunshine, this particular part of Gilead could be just another affluent New England suburb where families live in elegant, gated houses, except here armed guards known as “Eyes” patrol the streets in vans, monitoring the handmaids, who must walk to the market in twos.
Offred’s constant companion on these trips is Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), who talks in pious platitudes. Fear, paranoia and betrayal are everywhere, nobody is to be trusted, so every conversation between the two crackles with tension.
Information about how society came to be this way is parcelled out in flashbacks. We get glimpses of Offred’s old life, when she reveals to a friend that she is pregnant, and to the harrowing moment when she loses her husband (OT Fagbenle) and son as they made a break for the Canadian border.
The ending of Atwood’s novel is ambiguous, so The Handmaid’s Tale will, with the author’s blessing, extend to several seasons. If what’s to come is as good as this magnificent first episode, we’re set for something very special.