The Handmaid's Tale (1990) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

In the not-too-distant future, the good old boys have taken over the world and turned it into some kind of right-wing religious-nutbag theocracy, in which women have been relegated to insignificant support roles. Of course, there is one more gimmick. There always is.

Most of the world is infertile.

Because there are so many infertile women, fertile young women of childbearing age are rounded up and placed in re-education camps, where they are brainwashed on the new moral code until they are deemed suitable to bear children for a power couple. This isn't done through in vitro fertilization, but through a religious/sexual ceremony in which husband, wife, and handmaiden say a few prayers and then proceed to have passionless, nearly fully clothed sex, in which the handmaiden lies upon the wife while the husband lifts the surrogate's skirt and climaxes inside of her mechanically. 


Natasha Richardson's breasts were seen in a sex scene and two scenes in front of an open window, but no other exposed body parts are seen.
Natasha Richardson is chosen to be a handmaiden for the commander of the right-wing army (Robert Duvall). It turns out that the commander is as infertile as his wife, but the wife (Faye Dunaway) needs a child, so she comes up with a secret scheme to get the handmaiden pregnant by one of the subservient men in their household. Meanwhile, the handmaiden and the lover are plotting with the dreaded rebels, and there is an omnipresent civil war causing explosions which don't seem to destroy anything. (It's good to know that weaponry will actually become less potent in the future.)

The movie has a fairly interesting premise, and the development of the plot did have me wondering what would happen, but I wouldn't recommend it to you for a few reasons: (SPOILERS)

  • After two hours of running time, the film had made pretty much no forward progress. Then a bunch of sudden developments were crammed into the last five minutes, followed by one of those tacked-on narrated endings that takes place months after the central events, and is completely unsatisfying.

  • Natasha Richardson has a passive low-energy acting style that didn't seem right for this rebellious role. The part called for somebody angry and fiery, and Natasha did that whole Costner-as-Robin-Hood thing where she didn't seem to care much about anything.

  • There was a sub-plot about a daughter that Natasha was forced to give up. In addition to having the feel of something that didn't really belong in the story, it simply got dropped and was left unresolved. 

  • The politics of the movie are very heavy-handed. In the political-religious re-education camps, for example, women are taught that rape is their own fault. The right-wingers aren't realistic human characters, but one-dimensional cartoons.

  • For a futuristic movie with a big-name director, it sure has a low budget look. I guess it's fair to say it really has no unique look at all. The future looks exactly like the American suburbs of the present, except that all the women have to wear red, white, or blue outfits. 

It isn't an awful movie, but you'd expect better and subtler from Volker Schloendorff, the director of The Tin Drum. 


Tuna's comments in yellow:

The Handmaid's Tale (1990) is a story set in the not too distant future. Due to a series of environmental disasters, most women became infertile, and the religious right decided that God was punishing us for promiscuity, genetic engineering, acceptance of gays, woman's lib, and minority rights, and staged a coup. The set up a faith based government in a new country they called Gilead, founded on Old Testament principles. They corrected all of these abuses, mainly through persecution, but a civil war begins. Fertile women became "Handmaids," based on the biblical story of Rachel, who used her maid as a surrogate mother to have a child, to bear children for the rich and powerful. The handmaids have sex fully dressed and wearing a veil with the real wife holding their head and hands, and the husband only touching them with his dong. Naturally, the wives were not happy about the sex aspect of the "ceremony."

As the film opens, Natasha Richardson (Kate), her husband and son are trying to escape Gilead, and are caught by border patrol. He is killed, the daughter is taken to a rich family, and Kate is found to be fertile and goes into handmaid training, which is mostly brainwashing. She is finally placed in the home of a high ranking government security head (Robert Duvall) and his wife Faye Dunaway. She is unable to get pregnant, and learns that it is probably Duvall who is sterile (the new order does not test men.)

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.78:1

  • no major features

So Kate's task is either to get pregnant somehow and not piss off Dunaway in the process, or to find a way to escape. We see her breasts in two dark scenes, both times through a window at night. This is the sort of film I should have loved, as all of the villains are groups that I mistrust anyway, and, as a 60's sort of person, I have never been fond of the establishment. Unfortunately, I found it rather sterile for the subject matter, and the pace way too slow. Much of it was over-dark, making it hard to watch as well. I can barely give it a C.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: about two and a half stars. Ebert 2/4, 3.5/5

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. Nine articles on file

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.6 
  • With their dollars ... it grossed $5 million in the USA
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, we agree that this film is a C. Competent, but uninspiring, and too frigging dark.

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