Schlondorff and Pinter: The Handmaid's Tale

John Clute on Volker Schlondorff and Harold Pinter's film adaptation of Atwood's novel
A still from The Handmaid's Tale (dir. Volker Schlöndorff, 1990)
From a 1991 review published in the TLS:
For ten minutes there is some hope for Volker Schlondorff’s film of Margaret Atwood’s searching and claustrophobic novel of 1985. Only a few years from now, somewhere in a northern region of the United States, there has been a violent revolution. Inspired by a sudden loss of fertility in the human species, women-despising fundamentalists have come to power, and have reshaped society in their own insanely constrictive image. They call their terrible new world Gilead.

A young married couple attempt to escape across the border with their small daughter; the husband is killed, the child confiscated, and Kate, the brand-new widow (Natasha Richardson in flowing, nubile form), finds herself in a kind of concentration camp, where she will be taught to be a Handmaid; a breeder for the new elite. These initial scenes are shot with an icy sweeping clarity; just as in his film version of The Tin Drum, Schlondorff superbly evokes the moments just after the final calamity, the chaos and the stunned hush of zero hour, the deracinated despair of the exile.

Unfortunately, as soon as Kate begins to understand what it means to become a Handmaid, Schlondorff loses touch with the tale. It is, perhaps, not his fault, nor for that matter Atwood’s. In a work of sustained and concentrated prose, the dystopian abstractedness of the social setting helps to sharpen the arguments it conveys. But neither Schlondorff, nor Harold Pinter, whose screenplay is notably uneasy, show themselves capable of handling those implausibilities in the opened-out perspective of the film. [Read More]

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