The Handmaid’s Tale is unsettling television, not just for its bleak plot, but for the detached, dispassionate universe it transports us to. It’s enough to make you want to run and scream, just to remember you’re alive.
Based on the book by Margaret Atwood (and previously a 1990 film) this Hulu-produced drama is set in the near future following a 2015 plague which has decimated female fertility across the globe. America has returned to “traditional values” and embraced a kind of Pilgrim / Amish community and religious doctrine. But civil war edges closer and there are guards with machine guns on every corner of this dystopian society.
Offred (Elisabeth Moss) remembers a time when things were far different. She had a young family, freedom and civil liberties and a spirit of life. But now she finds herself suppressed as a handmaid to Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).
“I had another name but it’s forbidden now. So many things are forbidden now,” she recalls.
What she will have to do as their servant is one of the premiere’s most chilling scenes.
There are flashbacks not just to her former life, but to her initial recruitment when instructor Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) instills discipline and a new order. Any who disobey are in for cruel punishment.
“This may not seem ordinary, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary” Lydia vows.
Offred meets former college friend Moira (Orange is the New Black‘s Samira Wiley) but both are shocked by the fate that awaits a rebellious handmaid, Janine (Madeline Brewer). Under their white hoods and with eyes lowered, the handmaids whisper pious “Peace Be With You’s” whilst discreetly shopping for fruit in supermarkets. It’s all very surreal.
“I don’t need oranges. I need to scream. I need to grab the nearest machine gun,” Offred reveals.
If this is the future at the end of terrorism, Trump, climate change and extreme politics (the novel was written in 1985) then we should all be very scared – at least we have basic freedoms now, right?
Director Reed Morano uses hand-held cameras, pastel hues and minimalism to create his other world. Despite its largely colonial setting, Reed brilliantly subverts a chilling society. But like the future worlds of Logan’s Run, Soylent Green or Stepford Wives a perfect society comes at a price.
Elisabeth Moss is again outstanding as Offred, demonstrating subtext and quiet rage. Ann Dowd is tyrannical as a ruthless handmaid’s instructor while the dashing Joseph Fiennes clearly has more in store as the man on the end of Offred’s leash.
The themes of oppression, individuality, faith have much room to manoeuvre in a script by Bruce Miller. And while this is undoubtedly one of 2017’s best new dramas, the only reassurance it brings is in Offred’s fighting spirit and knowing that when the credits roll it’s all been a horrible nightmare.
But then, there is that wall going up near Mexico.
The Handmaid’s Tale premieres Thursday at SBS On Demand.