Picture two beautiful women in bed with one man. The first woman — fully clothed — moves her legs apart. The second woman — red gown hitched up — lies between the other’s thighs. The man — trousers down but white shirt buttoned and necktie knotted — looms above, penetrating the second woman with a militaristic two-four stroke. Kinky? Maybe in a David Lynch movie.
But in this futuristic look at sexual politics, the three-way is about as erotic as a gynecological exam. In adapting The Handmaid’s Tale, by Canadian novelist and poet Margaret Atwood, screenwriter Harold Pinter and director Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum) have taken a clinical approach, as befits a nightmare.
America, now called Gilead, is ruled by puritanical right-wing extremists. The Commander (Robert Duvall) and his wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway), think they are following the Bible’s example when they bed Kate (Natasha Richardson). The ritual described above is derived from the story of Rachel in the Book of Genesis, in which the barren Rachel allows her handmaid to bear children for her husband. In Gilead, nuclear fallout and pollution have rendered most women, including Serena Joy, infertile. Fertile women like Kate are prized possessions. With her husband murdered and her daughter taken away, Kate is pressed into baby-making service for the power elite. But if Kate — now called Offred — fails to produce for the Commander, it’s curtains.
The movie plays even sillier than it sounds. There’s a strict dress code: Handmaids wear red, wives blue and aunts (guardians of the handmaids) brown. Richardson, the gifted daughter of Vanessa Redgrave, is sandbagged by a drab role and Schlondorff’s deadly pacing. Her transitions from widow to handmaid to secret lover of the Commander’s chauffeur (Aidan Quinn) to underground rebel to assassin happen so fast that her emotions barely have time to register.
Duvall tries in vain to invest the stolid Commander with some humor. And Dunaway, Duvall’s costar in the palmier days of Network, has it worse. In stern Mommie Dearest style, she tells Offred, “If I get trouble, I give trouble.” It’s hard to believe that playwright Pinter could have come up with this bilge. Only Elizabeth McGovern, as a handmaid with a problem — she’s a lesbian — provides any fun.
What went wrong? Atwood’s lyrical, searching prose was, after all, justly acclaimed. Her novel encompasses misogyny, racism, fascism, fundamentalism, censorship, pollution and sexually transmitted diseases. But the movie has narrowed the focus to MCPs who like to put women in their place. Hollywood has again turned a challenging book into negligible cinema. Forget the $13 million budget and the reputations involved. This Handmaid’s Tale is merely a piss-poor rehash of The Stepford Wives with delusions of grandeur.