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
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.
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.