‘ Hand­maid’s Tale’ tough to watch, but worth it

The Republican Herald - This Weekend - - Calendar - BY VERNE GAY NEWS­DAY

Gilead, a break­away to­tal­i­tar­ian state set in New Eng­land, has placed cer­tain women in bondage. They are “hand­maids,” to be im­preg­nated by mem­bers of the rul­ing class be­cause most other women have been ren­dered in­fer­tile by pol­lu­tion or STDs.

Of­fred ( Elis­a­beth Moss) is in servi­tude to the “Com­man­der” ( Joseph Fi­ennes), whose wife, Ser­ena Joy ( Yvonne Stra­hovski) must bear wit­ness to the sor­did fer­til­ity rites. Other hand­maids, like Moira ( Samira Wi­ley) and OfGlen ( Alexis Bledel) share sim­i­lar fates, and dreams. Of­fred’s: To be re­united with her daugh­ter, Han­nah ( Jor­dana Blake). “The Hand­maid’s Tale,” a 10- episode se­ries, is adapted fromMar­garet At­wood’s 1985 novel.

On or about Jan. 10, 1685, Mary Reeve Web­ster, a res­i­dent of Hadley, Mas­sachusetts— also an ac­cused witch — was hanged by the neck un­til she was dead, or pre­sumed dead. When she was cut down the next day, Mary was still alive. She died years later of nat­u­ral causes, and a few cen­turies af­ter that, be­came im­mor­tal­ized by a dis­tant rel­a­tive.

At­wood ded­i­cated her now- clas­sic novel to this in­domitable spirit who would prob­a­bly be pleased ( and won­der of the adap­ta­tion, what is a “stream­ing ser­vice” any­way?). But like some dystopias set in the fu­ture, “The Hand­maid’s Tale” re­ally draws on the past, and is val­i­dated by the past, too. At­wood in­voked a long Western tra­di­tion of fe­male re­pres­sion, and not just Web­ster’s. Hester Prynne and her in­fa­mous scar­let “A” are echoed in Of­fred’s story. The model for Ser­ena Joy is Rachel of Ge­n­e­sis. Her hus­band, Ja­cob, en­slaved a “hand­maid” to bear chil­dren be­cause she could not.

The record is grim but “The Hand­maid’s Tale” — book and adap­ta­tion— in­sist it is real. Women through­out his­tory have been marginal­ized or bru­tal­ized, sowhy not a fu­ture writ in the blood and agony of th­ese “hand­maids?”

You can de­bate the “nots” at your leisure and doubt­less will. But at least one way to ap­proach this se­ries is to imag­ine that you are Of­fred. Forced into bondage, while the “black­shirts” roam the streets to en­force your servi­tude, the cam­era lit­er­ally grips your face, as it does Moss’ scene af­ter scene. It’s look­ing for the same ev­i­dence they are look­ing for— of your doubt, your guilt, your be­trayal. Moss must master two char­ac­ters si­mul­ta­ne­ously, notably that stoic ex­te­rior one, and an in­te­rior one, where the storm rages. The lat­ter oc­ca­sion­ally spills into the for­mer, but never for long, cer­tainly never in front of the “Com­man­der.” Like Mary, her game is a long one. She must sur­vive. She will sur­vive.

Of ne­ces­sity, “The Hand­maid’s Tale” is an im­mer­sive view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, where mood is painted stroke by stroke on the screen. Di­rec­tor Reed Mo­rano went to the Dutch master Ver­meer for in­spi­ra­tion, and chances are good- to- ex­cel­lent your own fa­vorite Ver­meer is re­flected here, es­pe­cially if it’s “Woman with aWater Jug” or “The Milk­maid.”

All this im­mer­sion into half- light and shad­ows slows time then re­verses it. Of­fred’s life seems caught in a time warp, or a feu­dal world where con­cu­bines and hand­maids are part of the nor­mal state of af­fairs. Her fate feels al­most pre­de­ter­mined. The clear im­pli­ca­tion is that his­tory re­peats it­self.

For viewers, “The Hand­maid’s Tale” is re­lent­lessly, in­sis­tently joy­less. It could not be oth­er­wise. More­over, the pac­ing is un­hur­ried. Time stops for Of­fred, and oc­ca­sion­ally for you aswell.

Beau­ti­ful, im­mer­sive and joy­less, “Tale” can be tough to watch, but “re­ward­ing” trumps “tough.” Hulu has its first lock on an Emmy vic­tory, maybe a few.

Grade: A-

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Elis­a­beth Moss stars in the Hulu 10- part se­ries “The Hand­maid’s Tale.”

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