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.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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