I exhaled slowly, a breath I didn’t know I was holding, as I read that author Margaret Atwood would be heavily involved in the TV adaptation of the hit dystopian classic ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, as a consulting producer and also even cameo. Finally, there was potential for this novel to be brought to life in this medium with justice.
When the casting was revealed I was enthused, as I always am, at Elisabeth Moss being cast in the titular role. Her eloquent, unwavering ability to allow viewers in to her submerged thought process and emotion without compromising character makes her a definite favourites to watch, ever since her performance in ‘Top of the Lake’. She deals in the real and the uncompromising, and it is an adventure to watch her.
Having seen the first three episodes, in one sitting, it is safe to vouch that two other characters stand tall in the supporting cast. Alexis Bledel is standout as the Handmaid Ofglen as is Yvonne Strahovski as the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy.
I don’t know whether it is a blessing in disguise that I have never seen Gilmore Girls (a travesty I know), as Alexis with her piercing blue eyes is dangerously fresh and full of raw truth, a character I assume so far removed from that of Rory Gilmore, which she clearly relishes. The unbelievable horrors Ofglen is subject to in the first three episodes, truly allows the viewer to become engulfed in the dystopian future, where infertility is at large and therefore women have been stripped of all rights. Here we see Ofglen, suffer tragically, reducing her ultimately in the final third episode to her base primal self emitting a chilling, almost Brechtian, carnal scream.
Yvonne’s Serena Joy, in contrast, is cold and controlling, measured in poise which starts to melt suspiciously at the prospect of becoming a mother. Her range is large and although she is restricted in her mannerisms, the fire behind her eyes is clearly burning brightly, this tantalises the audience in what we can expect from her throughout the rest of the series.
So the cast is phenomenally well chosen, however, the beginning of the TV series feels weak and underwhelming. It starts with Elisabeth Moss running, for too long. This chase sequence is prolonged and drawn out. Although it gives the audience an idea of what her character is being forced to give up, it is also referenced a couple of times throughout the series, and the sequence itself, in all its length, feels unnecessary.
Conversely, it is the voiceovers by the main character Offred, quiet and controlled which helps to draw the audience in and an effective tool in wrapping up the episodes in neatly contained bows.
I realise whilst watching the present day situation Offred finds herself in, how lucky I am as a viewer to be privy to such a systematic telling and update of the story so far with the use of flashbacks. I wonder if this is something I crave from this being limited in other dystopian worlds such as ‘The Walking Dead’, I mean seriously why do none of these characters ever speak about the normalcy and staples of the world before e.g. the internet, media and government. At times it feels like the space between the world as we know it and the dystopia is chasmic, almost unrelated.
This is avoided expertly in ‘The Handmaids Tale’ however with each flashback eclipsing one more human right, one more law being passed, one more violent act going unchallenged in a slow controlled takeover. Due to the dystopian future in which this is set, it sometimes feels that we are going backwards in time, that this is a period drama, which is encouraged further by the attention to detail in the remarkable costume and background. This makes the flashbacks more significant, as though we must cling to the recognisable in these moments e.g. the red wine being poured or the headphones being used. The littlest of freeing comforts until we are forced once more into the backwards future where there is only the controlling and the controlled.
Notably, it is the men in these flashback memories that I register most with, and this makes me uncomfortable. There is the man who calls the women ‘sluts’ for no apparent reason, the man who apologises meekly to all the women he has just fired and the man who tries to comfort his wife when her bank account is frozen by telling her he will ‘take care of her’. These men are the most terrifying, not because they are monsters but because they live in my world. I know and recognise them all in my own society.
It is harder to evaluate the male characters in the dystopian future part of the show because as as an audience I feel the ground beneath us isn’t yet set, with mistrust and censure rife, no-one is yet to show their hand. The Commander, played by Joseph Fiennes, a largely silent brooding man, reminds me forebodingly and prophetically of David Thewlis’s character in ‘The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas’, a man stuck in a abhorrent regime who conveys both the ability for monstrosity and humanity simultaneously.
A feature that is utilised with finesse is the ultimate feminist soundtrack including tracks such as Lesley Gore’s ‘You Don’t Own Me’ and Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’. Importantly the credit music is different for each episode, for example the classic ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me) by Simple Minds, which juxtaposes the setting but evokes nostalgia succinctly hammering home the point behind each chapter. Having these cult classic tracks supporting the narrative reminds the audience that this is not so far a dystopia from our own history and reality.
Themes touched upon and exposed within the first three episodes are systematic rape, murder and female genital mutilation. Overall, sexism and homophobia reign supreme in the world where you must trust no-one and think nothing because the Eye is always watching. You are correct in thinking that this should be shocking. But it isn’t. It is chilling, but not for the reason set out by the author, that this should be a cautionary tale. This tale feels way past cautionary, this is life.
It is hard to watch a woman be mutilated, when I am aware this is very much still a real issue being documented throughout Africa and the Middle East. It is harder still to watch women being used against their will, raped as inanimate vessels for harvesting life and not in the back of my mind push against that faint memory of the bills that are being passed in America to take away a woman’s right for choice over her own body. It is hardest to watch a woman be sentenced to death and murdered based on her sexual preference, being labelled a ‘gender traitor’ and not recall the atrocities that are happening in Russia now to the LGBT community.
Margaret, you wrote this cautionary tale, to show us how easy it is for people to take advantage of our liberties and how quickly a dictator and regime can indoctrinate us. But I can’t help but wonder if this is already our tale. Although I come away enthralled by such an incredible retelling of a classic novel, I am left with a sickness in my stomach, because these aren’t just horrors that are happening in a story. They are happening here and now, and we are living them.
Rhiannon Spencer was always known as a bookworm, quiet and shy, nose in a book, ferociously devouring stories. So it made sense when at 15, she became the youngest staff member of her County Council Public Library. It made less sense, to everyone around her, when she decided to secretly audition for Drama School, to become an actor. Still shy, and a little bit terrified, Rhiannon trained vocationally at The Arts University Bournemouth graduating with a 2:1 BA (Hons) in Acting and completed her formal training at Drama Centre London graduating with a 2:1 Masters Degree in Screen Acting (2015). A little more courageous now, Rhiannon continues to devour stories in every medium and write about them.