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MGM Studios DVD presents
The Handmaid's Tale (1990)

"Kind of like walking into the past, don't you think?"
- Commander (Robert Duvall)

Review By: Jeff Ulmer   
Published: December 11, 2001

Stars: Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Aidan Quinn
Other Stars: Elizabeth McGovern, Victoria Tennant, Blanche Baker, Traci Lind, Zoey Wilson, Kathryn Doby, Raynor Scheine, Lucia Hartpeng, Karma Ibsen Riley, Lucile McIntyre, Gary Bullock, Allison Holmes, J. Michael Hunter, Robert D. Raiford, Mirjam Bohnet
Director: Volker Schlöndorff

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: R for (nudity, themes)
Run Time: 01h:48m:25s
Release Date: December 11, 2001
UPC: 027616869296
Genre: sci-fi

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ AA-A- D+

DVD Review

"Here is Bilah, my maidservant. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and that through her I too can build a family." - Commander, quoting Genesis 30:3

The women's movement made great strides in the 1960s and 1970s, but by the 1980s was beginning to face a backlash from the sometimes radical feminist views that were making headlines. The climate was shifting, with an increasingly Conservative idealism, the rise of the religious right, and the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Canadian author and poet, Margaret Atwood, an outspoken feminist herself, was concerned that these changes in the political and social climate were actually creating an atmosphere in which the rights of women were not only prevented from making further gains, but were in fact reversing the clock.She observed, with alarm, some feminists aligning with fundamentalist factions in campaigns to ban pornography, ignoring the staunchly anti-feminist positions held by these religious groups. In her 1986 novel, The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood puts forward a society where the rights of women have been returned to their origins in Biblical times, relegated to restrictive and subservient roles in society under the guise of being in their "best interest." She created the Republic of Gilead, a post holocaust society built on the ruins of the United States, run by a patriarchal and monotheistic government, headed by a group of men known as the Commanders of God.

In the near future, something has gone horribly wrong. Following a man-made disaster, most of mankind is sterile. In the Republic of Gilead, the Eyes of God are rounding up the only remaining fertile women. They are sent to the Red Center, a place where they will be indoctrinated into their new role as surrogates for the Wives in society who are unable to bear their own children. They are taught the errors in the ways of the past, when women's freedoms left them vulnerable to rape and promiscuity, before the Commanders of God established the new order of Gilead, where the Scriptures set forth the rules by which womankind must abide, for their own protection. Kate is one of the fertile, separated from her family as they tried to flee the country: her husband killed, and her child left to wander in the snowy wilderness.

Under the guidance of Aunt Lydia (Victoria Tennant, Flowers In The Attic), the women at the Red Center are instructed in their new purpose in Gileadian society, and eventually Kate is selected as the new Handmaid for the Wife, Selena Joy (Faye Dunaway) and her husband, simply known as Commander (Robert Duvall), where she is given a new identity as Offred. Through an elaborate religious ceremony, she is duty bound to bear them a child, or face the dire consequences of failure. When she learns Commander may be sterile, her life depends on producing an offspring, no matter what it takes to do so.

Offred: You look like the whore of Babylon.
Moira: Well, I asked them to get me something sexy from Saks Fourth Avenue, but you know what the males like these days.

The Handmaid's Tale would become Atwood's second novel to receive a film adaptation, after Claude Jutra (Mon Oncle Antoine) brought the writer's Surfacing to the screen in 1981. The highly controversial novel has become part of high school and college curriculum for its use of metaphor and symbolism, and as a basis for discussion of the multitude of issues it raises. Veteran Harold Pinter (The French Lieutenant's Woman) was assigned to write the screenplay, and the film was directed by Volker Schlöndorff (Palmetto). Like most adaptations, it falls short of delivering everything the book offered, but the performances by the cast are well done, and although most of the ideas presented in the novel are touched upon, they lose much of their impact, especially in Atwood's play with language.

The themes expressed in The Handmaid's Tale may seem unrealistic, but they are based on historic origins. In particular, Biblical references permeate the work, from the name of the Republic—Gilead—to the ritual of surrogate motherhood, or the servant class, the Marthas. This cautionary tale of a dystopian future explores a world where rights and freedoms are revoked in the name of the betterment of society, and where the rule of law, based on extremist religious interpretations, allows its patriarchy full and supreme reign. When one looks at the current state of world affairs, this kind of future may not be that implausible after all.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: This is another nice looking anamorphic transfer from MGM. Well-rendered, fine grain makes for a very film-like appearance. Colors have good saturation, and black levels are solid. No signs of edge enhancement. Image is naturally a little soft. Aside from the opening credits, no compression issues of note. Print defects are limited to a few specs here and there, nothing distracting.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Stereo audio is well presented, with no distortion or other technical deficiencies. Dialogue is, for the most part, easily discernable, save for a couple of scenes where the score tends to fight it a bit. The soundstage is pretty center focused, spreading a bit for the background music. Frequency range sounds natural, with no overemphasis or excess sibilance.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The film's theatrical trailer is the lone extra.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

The Handmaid's Tale deals with a number of complex issues, and carries the controversies raised in the book across quite well. For the uninitiated, it offers an eye-opening look at idealism taken to its extremes. Solid performances from the cast convey author Atwood's dystopian future in an intelligent and disturbingly outrageous fashion. Recommended.


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