`THE Handmaid's Tale'' is science fiction with a purpose. It's a strange and sometimes melodramatic yarn about love and suffering in the not-distant future. It's also a warning about what might happen to American society if environmental irresponsibility, religious intolerance, and shameless sexism were carried to their most extreme conclusions. Directed by West German filmmaker Volker Schl"ondorff, it was not well-received at the Berlin Film Festival two months ago, where a number of observers found it surprisingly slow and static. Many critics have praised the movie since its American premi`ere immediately after the festival, however, and it has gone into wide commercial release.
Based on a novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, the film takes place in the United States, which is now called Gilead by its inhabitants. Time has brought two enormous changes to the area. The ecology has been ruined by pollution and toxic waste, to the point where most people can no longer have children. And religious fundamentalists have forcefully taken over the social and political order.
The heroine is a woman named Offred, who may be capable of having children. Because of this, she's ordered to become a ``handmaid'' or surrogate mother, forced into sexual relations with a member of the elite in order to supply his wife with a baby. Although she despises her situation, Offred has no choice but to submit, and even to become the friend of the man who controls her. Yet she learns about a network of people who resist oppression, and she never stops dreaming of a better life.
It's unlikely that such a future will literally come to pass in the United States, but ``The Handmaid's Tale'' still raises issues worth thinking about. There are misogynists and zealots in the world - religious and otherwise - who would be happy to impose their systems on the rest of humanity.
And if the environment were to take a horrible downturn, political changes might conceivably veer out of control. ``The Handmaid's Tale'' suggests that we take a hard look at trends in our society right now, and give some thought to where they might lead if not held in check. That's a message worth heeding.
In other ways, ``The Handmaid's Tale'' is well-made without being inspired. As the heroine, Natasha Richardson has a strong, unglamorous quality that suits her role well. Faye Dunaway is an effectively regal choice as the woman who controls Offred's life. Robert Duvall is not at his best as the commander who turns Offred into an involuntary ``friend,'' but he's a powerful actor even when his work is below par. Elizabeth McGovern, also on-screen currently in ``A Shock to the System,'' is excellent as a woman who won't suffer indignity without fighting back.
The screenplay, by Harold Pinter, adds unnecessary melodrama to the story. It also waters down Ms. Atwood's conception of a fundamentalist future: The movie specifies that its basic codes are based on an extremist reading of the Old Testament alone, while the novel also weaves chilling misrepresentations of New Testament passages (the Beatitudes, for instance) into its cautionary fabric.
Mr. Pinter tacks on a more hopeful ending, as well, somewhat mitigating the film's harsh use of sex and violence as deliberately disturbing narrative devices.