Women trapped in both a bro­ken Bri­tain and a dystopian fu­ture

Mar­garet At­wood and Jimmy McGovern have cre­ated very dif­fer­ent worlds with one com­mon theme

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Jen­nifer Gan­non

There is some­thing uniquely hor­ri­fy­ing about hav­ing Elis­a­beth Moss star as Of­fred in the new adap­ta­tion of Mar­garet At­wood’s dystopian mas­ter­piece The Hand­maid’s Tale ( Chan­nel 4, Sunday, 9pm).

For most she will be etched into pop­u­lar cul­ture as the dogged Peggy Ol­son,a char­ac­ter au­di­ences have cheered on, see­ing her thrive, mov­ing from shy sec­re­tary to con­fi­dent copy­writer, suc­ceed­ing as the very im­age of the modern woman in the testos­terone drenched world of Mad Men. Now, as Of­fred stripped of her civil lib­er­ties and bod­ily au­ton­omy she is stuck in a back­wards fairy tale, her char­ac­ter watching as the achieve­ments and free­doms of women rapidly de­plete.

This night­mar­ish vi­sion is not some­thing that can be dis­missed as past prim­i­tive be­hav­iour as the Amer­ica of the repub­lic of Gilead is a par­al­lel uni­verse, a near fu­ture that edges ever closer. It’s a place of civil war, of en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter that is ruled by a to­tal­i­tar­ian, reli­gious fun­da­men­tal­ist gov­ern­ment who deal with the de­creas­ing birth rates by forc­ing lower class women into sex­ual slav­ery as re­pro­duc­tive ser­vants for the in­fer­tile elite.

Un­like the 1990 Harold Pin­ter scripted film ver­sion of the novel, this take on The Hand­maid’s Tale is filled with re­al­is­tic moder­nity not the re­moved, al­most sci-fi cold­ness of its pre­de­ces­sor. Jump­ing from mem­o­ries of the be­gin­ning of Of­fred’s time in cap­tiv­ity and mem­o­ries of “the be­fore” – we see the fa­mil­iar, small mo­ments of or­di­nary plea­sure where a pre- Hand­maid June ( Of­fred) and her friend Moira en­joy a joint at a sum­mer bar­beque or a day out at the aquar­ium with her fam­ily.

These iden­ti­fi­able, mun­dane mem­o­ries are jux­ta­posed with the har­row­ing events within the Red Cen­tre where women are trained up to per­form their “du­ties” re­in­forc­ing how or­di­nary acts of in­de­pen­dence are taken for granted and the ease in which the rights of the women were dec­i­mated.

The Bruce Miller se­ries is shot through with the hazy sun­shine of a flat­ter­ing In­sta­gram fil­ter, deep reds, honey golds and gem tones and an at­trac­tive New England quaint­ness that trans­form it into a dra­matic Nor­man Rock­well paint­ing. A sim­plis­tic, pa­tri­ar­chal idyl­lic world for some, a bru­tal liv­ing night­mare for oth­ers. It is this dreamy soft­ness of the cin­e­matog­ra­phy that makes the ba­nal­ity of evil all the more up­set­ting and dis­turb­ing.

There are no safe spa­ces as the women are ob­served by the ever-present Eye (the Gilead se­cret po­lice) the whis­pered con­ver­sa­tions, bowed heads and the nec­es­sary in­vis­i­bil­ity of the Hand­maids make it feel as though a breath can never be fully ex­haled by them in this world of re­lent­less dread and fear. When this grind­ing ten­sion is bro­ken in a fu­ri­ous act of vi­o­lence which sees the women tear apart a man ac­cused of rape with their bare hands, Of­fred’s face comes alive with a sup­pressed rage that is in­can­des­cent and hints at the in­ter­nal strength she needs to sur­vive.

Bizarre hell

It is Elis­a­beth Moss’s tiny re­ac­tions, her ex­pres­sive face, enor­mous liq­uid blue eyes framed by the ‘wings’ of her bon­net in a se­ries of al­most in­tru­sive close- ups that are truly mov­ing. With a flicker of an eye­lid or a strained swal­low she por­trays the stu­pe­fied shock of an in­tel­li­gent, ed­u­cated once free woman caught in this bizarre hell de­ter­mined to break free at any cost.

It’s not just fu­tur­is­tic dystopian hellscapes that women are try­ing to es­cape from, the re­al­ity of modern life is as dis­turb­ing for some. Jimmy McGovern’s Bro

ken ( Tues­day, BBC 1, 9pm) is a fa­mil­iar tale of un­yield­ing work­ing class mis­ery. The tears, the wring­ing ex­haus­tion of a woman tee­ter­ing on the edge, grip­ping her chil­dren’s hands, wind­ing them down the rainy path­ways.

Anna Friel is the ex­as­per­ated Christina, steely mother of three who is pushed to her lim­its af­ter los­ing her min­i­mum wage job. Forced to con­tend with the Kafkaesque bureaucratic night­mare of the ben­e­fits sys­tem where she is blankly told to de­pend on the chil­dren’s ab­sent fa­ther, and that the only way to re­quest emer­gency funds is to firstly source a loan her­self, she hope­lessly turns to des­per­ate mea­sures to keep her fam­ily afloat.

Friel is a lost tele­vi­sion won­der, an ac­tress that should not have had such a spo­radic ca­reer. As Christina she is all sinew and grind­ing teeth, smiles too wide and clothes too big in scenes of com­mon­place heartache. The silent dis­tracted anx­i­ety etched on her face as she watches TV with her child’s head in her lap, the pal­pi­tat­ing, jit­tery worry she ex­udes in the blue morn­ing light of her sleep­ing chil­dren’s bed­room and that fizzing North­ern feisti­ness lead­ing to the shock at her­self, at the depths she will plum­met to in try­ing to keep one step ahead.

This is a land­scape of the every­day suf­fer­ing – the shame of damp clothes and the em­bar­rassed faces of her chil­dren head­ing to school with­out lunches all shown with un­flinch­ing di­rect­ness.

There is no su­gar- coat­ing or hol­low laugh­ter, no Frank Gal­lagher can- drink­ing wis­dom. This is “it’s grim up North” writ large, even Happy Val­ley and the This is England se­ries man­aged to have more sparky one-lin­ers amongst the ab­ject mis­ery. McGovern should know that man can not live on Sean Bean’s sullen ex­pres­sion alone.

The only mild di­ver­sion comes from Bean’s craggy, kindly priest, Fr Ker­ri­gan, who al­most takes on a saintly glow such is his gen­er­ous in­volve­ment in his parish­ioners lives. Al­though he has his own dark­ness to deal with that leaks out in a se­ries of flash­backs. In a piece that prides it­self on its res­o­lute au­then­tic­ity, the clunky segue into the back­grounds of other char­ac­ters lives as seen through the con­fes­sional box may be a dra­matic con­trivance too far. With the em­pha­sis on faith, it asks is there room for faith in lives that are ab­sent of hope?

There may be noth­ing that orig­i­nal in Bro­ken but these are sto­ries that need to be seen again and again to re­mind us that noth­ing much has changed since the days of Cathy Come Home or Kes and as Bri­tain goes to the polls, it’s ask­ing the im­por­tant timely ques­tion – how long can lives re­main so bro­ken?

While McGovern is as­sess­ing shat­tered lives, artist Grayson Perry is busy won­der­ing how to pick up the pieces in a post-Brexit UK in his doc­u­men­tary Di­vided Bri­tain ( Tues­day, Chan­nel 4, 9pm). Tak­ing the same tone as his pre­vi­ous doc­u­men­tary work where Perry’s art is cre­ated as the end re­sult of a type of artis­tic crowd­sourc­ing. In the past, this touched on top­ics such as mas­culin­ity, class and self im­age; this doc­u­men­tary fo­cuses on the pop­ulist iden­tity pol­i­tics that the idea of Brexit forced its vot­ers to ex­am­ine.


Perry put his Re­main views to the side as he in­ter­views pas­sion­ate Brexit sup­port­ers who felt cheated by an EU they never seemed to pros­per from. He chats to an im­mi­grant worker on a farm in Bos­ton, Lancashire who is fright­ened of what he sees as a re­turn to blind ig­no­rance and a mother and son who opine that Bri­tons will not do the thank­less, me­nial jobs that count­less im­mi­grants must do. In a leafy Lon­don sub­urb, he vis­its pro­gres­sive schools and morn­ing raves lis­ten­ing to the priv­i­leged ex­press their dis­com­fort at be­ing on the out­side of the EU and wor­ry­ing about their frac­tious fu­ture.

He asks these peo­ple to send him their idea of what Brexit or Re­main means to them, what pub­lic fig­ures they think rep­re­sent their views, the images that they think best make up the con­cept of Bri­tain. The fi­nal two vases, one for Re­main and one for Brexit are rem­i­nis­cent of Danny Boyle’s Olympics open­ing cer­e­mony brico­lage ef­fect. They are Bri­tain’s Big Brother- style “best bits” and what tran­spires is that both sides who ve­he­mently op­posed each other have match­ing philoso­phies, a shared vi­sion of what they thought their coun­try should be.

To both, the UK is a place of the Queen and Mar­mite, of coun­try gar­dens, teas and fry-ups. Perry takes this as a feel­ing of op­ti­mism and uni­fi­ca­tion, that the Yoga Mum­mies of Hack­ney want and en­joy the same things as the cab­bies from Lin­colnshire, but in ac­tu­al­ity they both share an idea of a coun­try that is as myth­i­cal as Or­well’s pre- war Bri­tain in Com­ing Up For Air or The Kinks’ Vil­lage Green Preser­va­tion So­ci­ety, bound up in a nos­tal­gia for some­thing that never was. Their UK is a coun­try that is as con­structed as Perry’s twin vases and con­tains a na­tional psy­che that is just as frag­ile.

Iden­ti­fi­able, mun­dane mem­o­ries are jux­ta­posed with the har­row­ing events within the Red Cen­tre where women are trained up to per­form their ‘du­ties’, re­in­forc­ing how or­di­nary acts of in­de­pen­dence are taken for granted


Of­glen (Alexis Bledel) and Of­fred (Elis­a­beth Moss) in The Hand­maid’s Tale.

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