‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ creates a disturbingly relevant dystopia

A birthing ritual in Gilead.
Photo: Hulu / Courtesy

Three and a half stars

The Handmaid's Tale Wednesdays, Hulu. Premieres April 26.

Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale has enjoyed renewed popularity in the current political climate, and while Hulu’s TV-series adaptation has been in the works since before the most recent election, it nevertheless has a very timely and potentially disturbing tone. It’s still an entertaining science-fiction story, but much of the attention it’s bound to get will come from the way it connects to and comments on the present day.

The thing is, Atwood’s novel was just as relevant in 1985, and it has joined the ranks of classics like 1984 and Brave New World because it isn’t tied to a single time period. The dystopian society of Gilead, a religious dictatorship that takes over the northeastern United States, has recognizable roots that go back decades, even if the show updates some of its signifiers to 2017. Flashbacks detail the downfall of American civilization, but they’re almost superfluous to understanding the rigidly composed world of Gilead, in which the woman known as Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is forced to serve as a handmaid, a surrogate womb for a powerful couple in a world in which almost everyone is infertile.

Show creator Bruce Miller and director Reed Morano (who helmed all three of the episodes available for review) create a stunningly oppressive world, and the design of the sets and costumes is particularly gorgeous, with every visual element contributing to Offred’s sense of being trapped and helpless. Like too many prestige TV series these days, Tale is paced maddeningly slowly (the result of taking 10 hourlong episodes to adapt a novel that was made into a single feature film in 1990) and too often belabors its most dramatic and intense moments. Even so, those moments are frequently powerful, thanks to Moss’ mesmerizing performance and a concept that is both timely and frighteningly timeless.

Tags: Film, Television
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