Handmaid’s Tale soars in the time of Trump
Early in The Handmaid’s Tale, author Margaret Atwood appears from the shadows and slaps Offred (Elisabeth Moss) in the face. It is as if she’s saying wake up. You’re having a bad dream. This world is so horrific, it couldn’t possibly be real.
But imagine there was a country headed by a “grab her by the p----” president. Or a vice-president who wouldn’t sit alone with a woman he wasn’t married to. Where proposed defunding of Planned Parenthood meant that women wouldn’t have control over their own bodies.
Atwood didn’t set out to forecast the Trumpian reality of today’s America when she created the dystopian, fictional world of Gilead in1985. But more than three decades later, the book remains admirably prescient.
The Toronto-shot series based on the work of the celebrated Canadian author is prestige television at its most substantive. It is Hulu’s answer to Netflix’s House of Cards and Amazon’s Transparent. It’s the show that should have been produced by a Canadian broadcaster and almost didn’t get picked up here until Bravo stepped in. Perhaps one day we will learn to celebrate our own art instead of taking the easy money of imported, franchised television. But we’ll leave that argument for another time.
It is enough that someone — including former NBC boss Warren Littlefield — understood the importance of the Booker Prize-nominated work that turned out to be a parable of the times, an illumination of the society we live in. It’s a depiction that almost certainly feels less hyperbolic today.
The cast includes Mad Men’s Moss (in an Emmy-worthy performance) as Offred, and co-stars Alexis Bledel ( Gilmore Girls), Samira Wiley ( Orange Is the New Black) and Joseph Fiennes ( Shakespeare in Love).
In the opening scenes, mirroring real-life efforts by some Americans in the Trump era, Offred and her husband and child are caught attempting to escape to the seemingly utopian world of Canada. The city that used to be called Boston has become polluted. The air is filled with so many chemicals and radiation that “God whipped up the special plague, the plague of infertility.” Only some women — handmaidens — can bear children. There is ultimately a steady progression of declining rights. The new leaders blame terrorists and suspend the Constitution. Women can no longer have bank accounts. Their property is taken away. Then they lose their rights over their own bodies. The act of sex is regulated by the state.
Moss plays the handmaiden Offred (meaning “Of Fred,” the name of her owner) where her name is a constant reminder of her servitude to the patriarchy. Bledel, in her most complex role yet, plays the tortured, complex “Ofglen,” a companion to Offred who is described as a “pious little s---” but turns out to be much more.
Cinematographer turned director Reed Morano ( Frozen River) creates a profound, visually stunning tableau of contrasts. The time before the forming of the republic is shot documentary style, with crisp, naturalistic light. For the demarcation into the new world she uses sharp, primary colours, punctuated by the billowing red robes of the handmaids, signalling that you have entered the misogynistic Disneyland that is Gilead.
And she never strays far from the best special effect in the series: Moss’s expressive face. Much of Offred’s world is internalized. Her story is told in voice-over and revealed through unflinching, claustrophobic close-up. From defiance, to fear, to stoicism and rage, Moss takes the viewer down a very dark path. After her first, brutally clinical encounter with her owner, known as the Commander (Fiennes), she rushes outside for air, spewing the unvarnished words of a rape survivor.
The words aren’t pretty. Because slavery isn’t pretty.
The Handmaid’s Tale is even more disturbing than most postapocalyptic fiction since Atwood uses history as the guide. It doesn’t feel gimmicky. Much of what happens in the show — the rise of a totalitarian state, the subjugation of women using religion as a tool in a fascist theocracy — has happened elsewhere. There are no flying saucers or magic monsters that keep them captive. The reality becomes even more alarming in this Frankenstein’s mash-up of religious fundamentalist values. The foundation of the republic, after all, stems from the Puritanism that bubbles beneath America today.
In Gilead, women are essentially treated like farm animals, “a prized pig,” as Offred calls it, and punished with electric cattle prods.
Atwood pays homage to British novelist George Orwell in the use of ornate doublespeak. In The Hand- maid’s Tale, homosexuals are called “gender traitors,” a crime punishable by death.
Bodies of a priest and gay men are found on “The Wall,” which surrounds the former Harvard University, a nod to the intolerance of the regime and a symbol that remains omnipresent by contemporary standards.
Over the decades the work has meant different things: from a treatise on feminism — a “feminist 1984” — to a critique on the abuse of power.
There was, perhaps not memorably, an arty, high-profile film in 1990 starring Natasha Richardson and Faye Dunaway with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. It was a beautifully stylized flop at the box office.
In the Hulu adaptation, showrunner Bruce Miller has wisely used the voice-overs that were lacking in the movie; making Offred less a symbol, more a real person.
In February, The Handmaid’s Tale overtook 1984 on the bestseller lists. The book currently tops the Star’s Canadian fiction chart. And women dressed as handmaids, in giant white winged hoods and red robes, have recently appeared in American protests over abortion rights.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that the author was recently named one of Time’s 100 most influential people of 2017. What no one could have foreseen is the confluence of factors that led to Atwood’s work having the kind of impact it does on the current political and cultural zeitgeist.
That, uncorked like aged cider and brewed in a new golden age of television, it would take more than three decades to mature into a perfect kind of poignancy.