This review contains spoilers. A spoiler-free review of the first three episodes is here.
Opening with sirens, a chase, gunshots, a woman and her child being kidnapped… The Handmaid’s Tale gets our attention as a thriller, but does its real damage as a horror – not just an intellectual what-an-existential-nightmare horror, but also the look-out-you’re-in-danger kind.
In this adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, director Reed Morano makes the nation of Gilead—the radically oppressive social experiment that’s replaced modern-day America—every bit as threatening as a haunted house or serial killer’s lair. Something monstrous lurks around every corner. Armed guards. Spies. Public executions. Absolute annihilation of personhood.
Due to a marked dip in birth rates, procreation is everything in Gilead. Gay men and doctors who perform abortions are strung up in the streets alongside other enemies of the state. That state is ruled by a fundamentalist Christian elite that categorises women either as Wives (privileged consorts of powerful men), Aunts (enforcers in the guise of teachers), Marthas (domestic servants), Handmaidens (surrogate mothers assigned to wealthy households) or Unwomen. The latter are deported to “the colonies” and sentenced to a—presumably short—life of clearing up nuclear waste.
Our heroine in this weighty, solemn story is Handmaiden Offred [Elisabeth Moss], who moves through it all like a horror movie lead, soundtracked by a foreboding cello score. The camera is repeatedly trained dead-centre on her face, which is where we read the danger. We meet this world reflected in Offred’s terrified, furious eyes.
What eyes those are. As Peggy Olson in Mad Men and Robin Griffin in Top Of The Lake, Moss has a reputation for prestige feminist TV drama that this role will only burnish. When a part requires intelligence, depth and fight, she’s evidently the one to call.
Moss is perfect as Offred. She conveys the rage beneath her imposed silence without a word, and when she does speak, the character is brought to life with irreverence and wit. It’s a terrific central performance that isn’t let down by those surrounding it.
Nor by anything, in fact, yet. The Handmaid’s Tale is so far an excellent adaptation of Atwood’s novel. It’s loyal and disloyal in all the right places. The book’s first-person narration has been transplanted (often word-for-word) to Offred’s voiceover, while its framing device (the story being reconstructed from a discovered series of cassette tapes recorded by an anonymous speaker) has been understandably nixed.
The novel’s most shocking parts have been pushed to the front to leave an early impression, and they certainly do that. The regularly scheduled “ceremony” in which Offred is raped by her new owner, Commander Waterston (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) as part of the state-enforced fertility push is exactly as dehumanising and sickening as it should be. The “salvaging” in which Offred and her fellow handmaidens are worked into a violent frenzy and encouraged to take bloody vengeance on a bound prisoner, is as hard to watch as it is to read.
The most uncomfortable scene, and it certainly has competition here, is perhaps the “testifying”, a process mimicking a support session in which the Handmaidens are expected to talk about their previous lives. A young woman tells of being subjected to an hours-long gang rape as a teenager, but instead of receiving sympathy and help, she’s blamed as responsible for leading her attackers on and jeered at by a circle of finger-pointing peers.
The Handmaidens did have previous lives before Gilead. Offred was a college-educated woman with friends, a partner, a daughter, and her own name (one we learn here, unlike in the novel) before she was dragged into the inescapable Rachel and Leah Centre – the place where they train Handmaids for their new roles and pluck out your eye if you talk back. That’s where the brief moments of lightness in this suffocatingly dark story come from—flashbacks to a time before this happened. Flashbacks to our time, in fact.
The speed at which Gilead imposed itself so irreversibly is one of many chilling visions in The Handmaid’s Tale. First one right was taken away, then another, then another. As Atwood wrote in the novel, “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it”. That’s the angle which made this series such a hot topic when it debuted in the US a month ago. For some reason over there, the notion of long fought-for civil rights achievements being reversed by a patriarchal despot with no respect for women struck a chord.
The Handmaid’s Tale certainly strikes a chord. Its themes are still urgent and its feminist critique is still painfully sharp. This carefully stylised adaptation (director Reed Morano’s background in cinematography gave episode one so many skilful, painterly compositions there’s no time to list them all – see the staging of the Commander, Offred and Serena Joy in the respective fore, middle and backgrounds after the ceremony for one example) does real justice to Atwood’s dreadful vision. It’s a very tough watch, but so far, a triumph of an adaptation.
The Handmaid’s Tale continues next Sunday the 4th of June on Channel 4 at 9pm.