THE HANDMAID'S TALE (1990) is a faithful adaptation of Margaret Atwood's best-selling feminist novel. An all-star cast -- including Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway, Aidan Quinn, Elizabeth McGovern, and Victoria Tennant -- performs in a story about the near future, when fertile women are rare and prized -- but stripped of all their rights and forced into slavery to bear children for the state.
As the film begins, Kate (Natasha Richardson) is trying to cross the border to escape the "Republic of Gilead" -- a totalitarian state where, because of pollution and devastation, most women are incapable of bearing children. Kate is captured and found to be fertile. She and the other "handmaids" are entered into a state-sponsored sexual slave ring where women carry out their duties to state and religion by bearing children for high-ranking individuals in society. Kate is to be impregnated by the Commander (Robert Duvall), much to the distress of Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway), his religious wife who fears he may be sterile. Soon, Kate learns of an underground resistance movement and begins to plot her escape.
THE HANDMAID'S TALE is a great piece of science fiction. It takes a modern-day controversial topic -- a woman's right to choose how to treat her own body -- and exaggerates the consequences of restricting those rights for the common good. The result is a nightmarish scenario that seems all too possible. With the exception of Victoria Tennant (who seems to always play the same sort of shrill baddie in every film), the performances are wonderful. The film is a bit cold and distant at times, but the ideas and themes of the film more than make up for the lack of cinematic flair. This is one of my favorite "sleeper" films and one of the few thoughtful science fiction films to be released in the past decade.
This is a very fine DVD transfer from MGM. Previous VHS and LaserDisc editions were soft and had a distinct brownish tinge to the colors. This new transfer is much sharper and the color palette is more accurate -- colder and much more appropriate to the film. No compression artifacts were visible and the print is free of any damage.
For the first time on home video, A HANDMAID'S TALE is presented in the theatrical 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio (enhanced for 16x9 viewing). The framing mattes off picture information from the top and bottom of the frame when compared to previous editions, but makes for a much more satisfying viewing experience. Doing a direct comparison between this DVD and the old Image Entertainment LaserDisc shows how improved many shots are in the new framing. This is a textbook example of why all films should be presented on DVD in the proper aspect ratio.
Overall, the video on this DVD is certainly not going to win any awards, but it is a huge step up from any previous edition. I have nothing but praise for it.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 surround soundtrack is acceptable, if unremarkable. Dialog is centered and easy-to-understand, but there is little else going on sonically. There is a very narrow front soundstage, and I noticed absolutely no surround information during the entire film. The majority of the film is dialog-driven, so the lack of a dynamic soundtrack is not distracting, but I did notice a distinct lack of "punch" for the film's musical soundtrack and moments that would ordinarily benefit from multi-channel sound (gunshots, trucks, etc.)
MGM provides the film's theatrical trailer as the only extra. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.
A HANDMAID'S TALE is definitely not a "feel good" movie, so it may have limited re-watch value for most people. But, it is a very well made film filled with wonderful performances and a screenplay that creatively discusses important issues. I only wish that they made more science fiction films like this. MGM seems to have priced this DVD about $5 higher than their usual movie-only editions, but the cost is still reasonable and the DVD is highly recommended to people interested in women's issues or just cerebral science fiction in general. At the very least, you should consider renting this interesting, little-seen gem.