In the not-too-distant future, America has become a theocracy. The right wing has taken over and purged itself of the more unsavory elements, like blacks and homosexuals, sending them concentration camps. Women are removed from the workplace, all hints of feminism excised, and prayer made mandatory.
Years of abusing the environment has taken its toll, and poisoned water has left 99% of the population sterile. Fertile women are rounded up and sent to live as "handmaids" for the elite. Taking a cue from Genesis 30, these women are used as baby mills, providing offspring for the ruling class.
Caught trying to escape across the Canadian border, Kate (Natasha Richardson) is forced into servitude. She is sent to work for the Commander and his jealous wife (Faye Dunaway). Kate must provide them an heir, and soon. Unfortunately the Commander just might be sterile. Of course, in this patriarchal society, men aren't tested and failure to produce is always the handmaid's fault. By that same logic, rape victims are guilty of enticing men to assault them, and women caught fornicating are hanged.
All of this has the potential to make an interesting movie. The source novel is highly respected and themes are, perhaps more so now than when the film was made, timely enough to be almost prescient. But the film has two serious problems.
First off, Natasha Richardson is so uncharismatic, her performance so wooden, it hobbles whatever drama the film may have inspired.
The second problem is director Schlöndorff. He never manages to lift this production up higher than that of a Lifetime movie of the week. There is no sense that he is doing anything more than aiming the camera and letting his actors deliver their lines. A dystopian future requires a director to impart a certain feeling of catastrophe, of gritty desperation, that the world really has gone to hell. And a director certainly needs to pull performances from his actors that reflect the emotional gravity of the situation.
But the film remains, throughout, nothing more than a dull interpretation of its source material. That's a shame too, as this had the potential to be a great movie.
Directed by Volker Schlöndorff • R • 1990 • 109 minutes