Hulu’s new series The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s bestselling novel and headlined by Elisabeth Moss, is receiving a slew of excellent reviews. With that project debuting April 26, viewers can also check out the 1990 film which was released this week on Blu-ray via Shout! Factory. With the movie being an excellent primer to the events that will transpire behind the series, it’s also a narrative that stands on its own.
Set in the near future, The Handmaid’s Tale centers on Kate (Natasha Richardson), a woman who is enslaved after trying to escape the country with her family. Since Kate is able to conceive children and infertility is the current norm, she’s relegated to being a handmaid for a powerful couple (Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway). With Serena Joy (Dunaway) unable to conceive, Kate is tasked with getting pregnant with the Commander’s (Duvall) baby. Aidan Quinn co-stars as Nick, the Commander’s right hand man who immediately falls for Kate, with Elizabeth McGovern (Downton Abbey) delivering standout work as Moira, Kate’s strong-willed friend and fellow handmaiden (Moira is labeled a “gender traitor” since she is a lesbian!).
Though some may criticize Richardson’s rather muted performance as Kate, it’s easy to see why the actress and director Volker Schlöndorff didn’t make Kate a more emotionally showy character. During her entire journey Kate is witness to consistent tragedy and subjugation, and by playing her cards close to the vest she’s able to push on to another day.
The movie also marks a reunion for Network actors Duvall and Dunaway, and both deliver solid work as a couple who, since they are at the highest level of society, want things to remain status quo (even as their nightmare of a marriage continues to crumble). More scenes between the two actors would have been welcome in the film, but that’s a slight nitpick for a movie that delivers prescient themes without being preachy.
Living in a patriarchal society that places minorities and women behind the proverbial eight-ball is a story that will never be too tired to tell, and The Handmaid’s Tale is a well crafted story which features strong performances from an engaged ensemble (Victoria Tennant is also a standout as Aunt Lydia, the woman who “helps” the handmaids assimilate into this backwards society).