mon 20/05/2024

The Handmaid's Tale, Channel Four review - triumphant dystopian drama | reviews, news & interviews

The Handmaid's Tale, Channel Four review - triumphant dystopian drama

The Handmaid's Tale, Channel Four review - triumphant dystopian drama

Rape, executions, Scrabble: it's all go in Gilead. Blessed be the fruit

Elisabeth Moss as Offred: trying to resist the normalisation of repression

The second episode of Bruce Miller’s brilliant dramatisation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale on Channel 4 finds Offred (the wonderful Elisabeth Moss) being penetrated by Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes, looking conflicted).

Of course, his barren wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) is there too, lying on the bed with Offred’s head bouncing in her lap. Offred tries to take her mind off this no-fun threesome with thoughts of blue things from the time before. Her blue car, "Tangled up in Blue", Blue Oyster Cult – how alien the words sound. Especially as handmaids only wear red. “I wish he’d hurry the fuck up,” thinks Offred.

The Republic of Gilead does not allow music from the time before, or only the religious kind. We find out more details: Anchorage is now the capital of what was the USA, and there are only two stars on the flag. Cathedrals are being demolished, even St Patrick’s in New York. Pre-Gilead, Ofglen, Offred’s companion on shopping errands, was a college lecturer and a “carpet-munching gender-traitor” with a wife and son, but she’s got two good ovaries so her sins could be overlooked. Offred, whose real name is June, used to be an assistant book editor. Now women are not allowed to read.

Once a handmaid has given birth (though the chances of having a healthy baby are one in five), she’s moved on to another Commander’s family for a repeat performance, if she’s lucky. If not, she’s sent to the colonies with the Unwomen to clean up toxic waste. No one lasts long there. Handmaid indoctrination takes place in the Red Center, ruled by terrifying Aunts with cattle prods. No one can forget Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia in a hurry. “This might not seem ordinary now,” she tells the girls, “but after a time it will.” Offred’s task is to resist that slide.

With her sardonic interior monologue, Moss as Offred has a hauntingly intense, forceful presence. She vows to survive for her eight-year-old daughter, who was snatched by soldiers about three years previously when the family was trying to escape from Maine into Canada - shades of Trump’s America and the underground railroad of asylum seekers fleeing over that same US border today. Atwood states that she didn’t put anything in her novel that wasn’t based on historical fact. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes in The Handmaid's TaleMiller’s updating of the novel’s pre-Gilead days – smart phones, Tinder, clubbing - makes for an even more chilling contrast with the deceptively beautiful, Vermeer-like scenes of the Waterford mansion, with its rich wall colours and antique furniture. And the fact that Serena Joy and Fred are younger in the series than in the novel makes for more ambivalence, more sexual tension and more empathy. Moss’s and Strahovski’s occasional silent glances at each other convey volumes.

The birthing scene at the heart of episode two takes place in an even more luxurious mansion than the Waterfords’. Curly-headed, feisty, “batshit-crazy” Janine (Madeline Brewer), who had her right eye plucked out in the Red Center, is now Ofwarren and is in labour, with Warren’s wife having phantom pains behind her on the birthing chair. (I love the uncommanding names - Glen, Warren, Fred.) They are surrounded by a swarm of red-clad handmaids, overseen by Aunt Lydia, encouraging Ofwarren to push and exhale. It’s an extraordinarily powerful scene, mirrored by Offred/June’s flashbacks of giving birth to her own daughter in hospital, where there are frightening intimations of the future: most of the other babies die and a deranged woman tries to steal June’s from the hospital nursery.

But there are cracks appearing in Gilead too. Is handsome driver Nick (Max Minghella) an Eye (they’re everywhere) or does he just fancy Offred? Why is Commander Fred (pictured above, with Moss) breaking the rules by asking her to meet him alone in his room in order to play Scrabble (never before has the game looked so sensuous)? These first three episodes are wonderfully directed by cinematographer Reed Morano, who worked on Vinyl and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. The only jarring note is the closing-credits music: last week’s “You Don’t Own Me” by Lesley Gore seemed too obvious (and Dusty Springfield's version would have worked better); this week’s Simple Mind’s “Don’t You (Forget about Me)” was released in 1985, the year Atwood’s novel came out, and Morano has said she was inspired by its The Breakfast Club vibe, but it still doesn’t seem a good choice. But that’s a niggle. Blessed be the fruit. Under his eye.

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