The Handmaid’s Tale review – the best thing you’ll watch all year

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel gets the chilling and brilliant TV adaptation it deserves, including a standout performace from Elisabeth Moss

‘Blessed are the meek, dear,” says Aunt Lydia to a young woman called Janine in the extraordinary, affecting new TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale (Channel 4, Sunday). Then she Tasers her for insubordination, before Janine is taken away to have her right eye plucked out.

They are in the Rachel and Leah Centre, also known as the Red Centre, where handmaids are instructed in the ways and belief system of the Republic of Gilead, and in their role as servile surrogate breeders. “Ordinary is just what you’re used to,” continues Aunt Lydia (a terrifying Ann Dowd) to the now fully attentive handmaids, including Offred (Elisabeth Moss). “This might not seem ordinary right now, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary.”

There has been a lot of talk about new resonance for The Handmaid’s Tale since the election of You Know Who; fear of freedoms, rights and long-established orders disappearing overnight. That line, especially, about the not-ordinary becoming ordinary, rings chillingly loud and true today, when “normalisation” is a word you hear so often in connection with the current US administration. Apposite timing for the adaptation, or prophetic by Margaret Atwood.

She wrote her dystopian novel in Berlin, in 1985. The wall was still up; on the other side was the eastern bloc and the Soviet Union, a powerful influence. And, famously, she didn’t put anything in that hadn’t happened, somewhere, some time. As much history fiction as science fiction, then, even if the history was cherry-picked, from early American Puritans to cold war commies.

If you think about the 32 years since publication, she could have easily expanded her orchard to include any number of extremist regimes, anywhere religion has been used as an excuse for terror, or where women have been repressed, wars in which rape has been used as a weapon (so just about all of them), slumping fertility in developed countries, surrogacy in the developing world … and so on.

What I’m saying is that it does not just have new resonance, it has never stopped resonating, unless you live in a peaceful, matriarchal, uncontacted, unreligious tribe in the Amazon. Maybe the adaption feels extra-poignant because the geography of fact and fiction are now in alignment in the US, even if in real life the constitution is just about hanging on, for now …

The Red Centre would be the standout scene if there weren’t so many standout scenes: Offred’s brutal separation from her daughter in the woods; the mob execution of a man; “the ceremony”, which is Gilead-speak for Offred lying in the lap of Serena Joy (who is neither serene nor joyous, but is infertile) and being coldly, mechanically raped by Serena’s husband, the Commander, the man Offred has been assigned to for the purpose of procreation. That last is one of the most disturbing, horrible things I’ve ever seen on television.

Moss, who has already been one of the best things about two great shows, Mad Men and Top of the Lake, is again utterly captivating. A brilliant performance – quiet, not giving anything away, because she can’t, and yet also saying so much, via inner voice but also with her face and her eyes.

The Handmaid’s Tale looks extraordinary – stylised, choreographed almost, menacing. It sounds fabulous, too. An ominous, low note descends a semitone, lower still, dragging you down with it, into danger. Dogs bark in the distance. Some people are singing Onward Christian Soldiers.

Even the flashbacks, so rarely totally successful, work here. Because they are back to pre-Gilead (possibly round about now?), it feels like a brief respite, being allowed up for air for a minute, before being pushed back down again with a boot on your head. And they act like warnings – to Offred, maybe to us, too – against normalisation. It wasn’t always like this, it’s not ordinary now: don’t let it become ordinary.

It is a brilliant adaptation – some changes, but loyal in what it says and what it asks. Atwood clearly approves: not only was she a consulting producer, but she’s in it, a Red Centre cameo as a slapping Aunt. And it’s brilliant television; I doubt there will be anything better this year. Resonant now, yes, but it will go on being so, ringing in your ears, and your head.

Contributor

Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Handmaid’s Tale series 2 review – as intense as TV gets
The dystopian drama has strayed beyond Margaret Atwood’s novel, but it still manages to find beauty in the darkest trauma

Sam Wollaston

20, May, 2018 @9:15 PM

Article image
The Handmaid’s Tale review – no television event has hit such a nerve
Over 10 extraordinary episodes – and set against traumatic real-world events – this adaptation has resonated as loudly as Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel

Sam Wollaston

31, Jul, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
The Handmaid’s Tale season four review – hope at last in the most harrowing show on TV
Elisabeth Moss has always made this impressive if horrifying TV. But as the new series turns June into queen of the rebels, it has a shot of new life

Rebecca Nicholson

20, Jun, 2021 @9:10 PM

Article image
Man in an Orange Shirt review – a heartbreaking tale of happiness denied
Patrick Gale’s drama – based on his own parents’ marriage – shows the difficult consequences of concealing your sexuality in wartime Britain. Plus: also from the BBC’s Gay Britannia season, Ben Whishaw stars in Queers

Rebecca Nicholson

01, Aug, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
Shamed review – revenge is a dish best served by other dramas
What could have been a zeitgeist-tapping thriller turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. Plus: heartstring tugging on The Repair Shop at Christmas

Lucy Mangan

20, Dec, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Divorce season two review – ‘Best watched through fingers and a Valium haze’
Sharon Horgan’s acutely observed tale of a disintegrating marriage has just enough light relief to keep it bearable. Plus, Marlon Brando’s Polynesian paradise revisited

Lucy Mangan

27, Feb, 2018 @10:45 PM

Article image
Paula review – a menacing, mardy revenge thriller
Murder and mystery abound, but the real riddle is why Denise Gough’s Paula is so glum. Plus: Dr Chris Van Tulleken on the changing face of HIV

Lucy Mangan

26, May, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
Endeavour review – as comforting as cheese on toast
Russell Lewis’s Inspector Morse prequel – a clever, well-crafted whodunnit oozing with period detail – gets better and better. Plus: Stanley and His Daughters

Sam Wollaston

05, Feb, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Black Narcissus review: erotic, gothic – and totally unconvincing
While the performances are strong, this new adaptation about mysterious goings-on at a convent school lacks suspense

Lucy Mangan

27, Dec, 2020 @10:00 PM

Article image
Life review – hopes and heartaches behind closed doors
Mike Bartlett’s latest drama, set in the same world as his smash-hit Doctor Foster, is a smart exploration of the human condition, with just the right amount of sentimentality

Ellen E Jones

29, Sep, 2020 @9:00 PM