In a future America, an authoritarian theocratic state rises to power and forces captive women to breed children for the dominant religious class. [ The Handmaid’s Tale credits: Dir: Volker Schlondorff/ Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway/ 109 min/ Drama, SciFi-Fantasy/ Reproductive Liberty]
The reproductive rights question is taken to its extreme in this story of one woman’s experience as a breeding slave.
As The Handmaid’s Tale begins, a nightmarish church/state combo has just come to power. They want a return to traditional values—very traditional values—even going so far as to replace the Constitution with the Old Testament. At the same time, ongoing environmental disasters have compromised the fertility of all but a small number of women. Those few are drafted to “serve God and Country” by making babies for the controlling class. The result is a particularly cruel situation for women, who, if fertile, become a captive resource for the re-peopling of the country, or, if not fertile, are simply sent to die in concentration-camp-like work colonies. The “People of Ham,” i.e., blacks, don’t fare much better, being relegated to slavery as a passage in the Old Testament allegedly commands.
We learn about all this through the eyes of a young woman who has just been drafted to be the “handmaiden” (surrogate mother) for the state security chief and his wife. The onus is on her to produce a baby, fathered by the security chief, or she will face severe punishment. The trouble is, the security chief himself just may have some fertility issues, and as her allotted time for becoming pregnant by him gradually runs out, she realizes that escape is her only option.
Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall are excellent as the principal villains in The Handmaid’s Tale. Duvall’s character is seemingly normal yet malevolent, a man comfortable with any means to achieve his ends. Dunaway is at once friendly and entirely predatory. The book on which this film is based (same title, by Margaret Atwood) is included in the American Library Association’s list of “The Most Frequently Challenged Books in the 1990s.”