Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

By Martin Shore

We’ve got a streaming service to thank for what is being consistently agreed as one of the best television experiences we’re going to get this year. Netflix competitor Hulu has adapted a frequently studied novel into what is undoubtedly going to become a highly praised television show.

Before I get into this stunning adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel, I’ll just say one thing: The Handmaid’s Tale is not for the faint of heart. This is a bleak, bleak show, entertaining as it may be. It deals with a lot of troubling themes, but is fantastic at tackling them. It takes place in the newly formed fictional dystopia of the Republic of Gilead, where most of the female population has become unable to bear children. In response, the new ruling classes indoctrinate those still fertile as handmaids: women used for complete servitude.

Even this early into the series (which has already aired in the US), it is immediately clear that great care has been used to create both a strong and sympathetic female protagonist. Elizabeth Moss’ performance as one of the titular handmaids is extremely personal, and the layering of her interior monologues and narration alongside flashback sequences to her pre-dystopian life becomes a powerful tool of resistance and comparison. From the first two episodes alone, we are strongly on her side.

The cinematography is equally grand. There’s great skill in the shots here, with heavy use of closed framing throughout compounding the sense of entrapment. Likewise, although overuse of headshots typically indicates lazy editing or cheap, easy editing (soap opera styling), here it makes perfect sense. We must obtain a strong sense of the characters for the dystopia to manifest itself, and thus it works well.

The plot is undoubtedly the show’s main draw. The oppressive regime and the characters’ struggle against it is the driving force, like The Walking Dead’s more human moments (just far less dragged-out). In terms of plot, the production team has treated the obviously sensitive nature of many of the show’s themes with sincerity. We are successfully horrified by the events unfolding before us, with a particularly evocative and open depiction of the actual ritual of sex with a handmaid being treated with the gravitas of a religious ceremony. It is the starkness of the depiction of sex which stood out for me. It is not overly explicit, nor gratuitous. It’s no early Game of Thrones, that’s for sure. It’s difficult to deal with plot without spoiling things so early on, so I’ll just hammer it home; it’s done well.

Whether you see its production as disturbingly plausible or not, the adaptation of Atwood’s chilling work, which originally arose from the inspiration of the Berlin wall crisis, is sure to resonate with large swathes of its audience. Authoritarianism, women’s rights, sexual freedom, insubordination, oppressive regimes and extremism are set against with liberty from the very first episode. It is a testament to the show’s success that I am not already lost between all the points it’s making. Everything is succinctly dealt with, but afforded the time it needs to be handled effectively. It’s hard to discuss without spoiling anything, but every shock is as interesting as the one before.

My ultimate verdict is this: absolutely try episode one. If you can handle it, carry on. The Handmaid’s Tale seems set to become some of the best TV we’ve seen recently, and thus far I’d say it’s grabbed me hook line and sinker. If you’re looking for a stark drama, you can’t go wrong.

The Handmaid’s Tale is not an easy watch, but I genuinely can’t wait to see how the show progresses (and should probably get onto reading the book at some point).

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