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Handmaid’s Tale, The (1989, Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway)



Margaret Atwood’s award-winning 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale was adapted for the screen by Harold Pinter and predicts a future where the United States have been taken over by right-wing fundamentalists who have turned the country into the Republic of Gilead and who govern it under strict puritanical rules.

NATASHA RICHARDSON, her husband REINER SCHONE and child BLAIR NICOLE STRUBLE attempt to escape across the border to Canada: Schone is shot and Struble disappears. Richardson is caught and, found to be fertile (a rarity in an age of raging pollution), is sent to be trained as a handmaid. It is a sentence of sexual slavery since her job is to produce children for the privileged few. She learns her new duties from KARMA IBSEN RILEY and is befriended by lesbian handmaid ELIZABETH McGOVERN whom she later helps to escape from the state indoctrination centre.

After being interviewed by FAYE DUNAWAY, wife of high-ranking government official ROBERT DUVALL, Richardson is assigned to become a sexually indentured slave at the couple’s home. Every month Dunaway holds her down while she is forced to undergo intercourse with Duvall. Through fellow handmaid BLANCHE BAKER Richardson learns of an underground resistance movement. But as the months pass and Richardson fails to become pregnant Dunaway, who suspects Duvall may be sterile, orders Richardson to have sex with household chauffeur AIDAN QUINN. To encourage her cooperation Dunaway promises to bring her news of her missing daughter who may have survived. Meanwhile Richardson and Quinn fall in love.

When she conceives, Richardson does not want to give up the child and when Duvall summons her to his quarters to dismiss her, she kills him. She is arrested by state police who arrive with Quinn – but discovers her ‘captors’ are actually anti-government revolutionaries who take her to their mountain stronghold to await the birth of her child.

Ironically, originally cast lead Sigourney Weaver had to leave the production when she became pregnant and there were major problems in finding a replacement. Jodie Foster and Debra Winger both rejected the role before 26-year-old Richardson accepted. Richardson’s everywoman hits the right note of plainness and strength.

Director Volker Schlondorff and screenwriter Harold Pinter recreated Atwood’s chilling, dark dystopia in stark cinematic terms. Said producer Daniel Wilson, whose actress wife ZOE WILSON first suggested he read the novel and who features in the film, ‘everything we did is set in a totally realistic world. It is not fantastic, but is as straight and normal as the world we are living in, and just as recognizable.’

production details
USA | 108 minutes | 1990

Director: Volker Schlondorff
Writer: Harold Pinter, from the novel by Margaret Atwood

Elizabeth McGovern as Moira
Aidan Quinn as Nick
Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy
Robert Duvall as The Commander
Natasha Richardson as Kate / Offred
Victoria Tennant as Aunt Lydia
Blanche Baker as Ofglen
Traci Lind as Janine / Ofwarren
Kathryn Doby as Aunt Elizabeth
Reiner Schöne as Luke
Gary Bullock as Officer on bus