Kate (Natasha Richardson) was fleeing the Republic of Gilead, a war-torn country of the recent future where conservatism has erupted into fascism and an enforced dedication of the populace to Biblical values, but as she was nearing the border troops appeared and gunned down her husband, then took away her young daughter. Not knowing if she'd ever see the girl again, Kate was packed into a van and taken to a camp where the Handmaids were trained, for the land had become so polluted that most of the women were infertile, and Kate's ability to bear children was a valuable commodity...
The general reaction to this adaption of Margaret Atwood's pessimistic science fiction novel was that something had been lost in translation. In the source, the sense of a chilly fable of encroaching suffocation in the years to come had left many readers spellbound, but somehow in this film it ended up just another dystopian freedom fighter yarn. It didn't help that until the very end when she unexpectedly (and frankly unbelievably) plucks up courage to act on the injustice that surrounds her, Kate was a passive heroine to a cypher-like degree, allowing us to observe the society she was trapped in but not contributing anything useful to the story.
Contrast her with the most interesting character, Elizabeth McGovern's spiky and sarky Moira, who has been captured and sent to the same camp as Kate for breaking decency laws - she's a lesbian - and does her very best to continue to break all the rules she can. This is made difficult when there are so many restrictions on the Handmaids which if transgressed will result in execution, but come the point where Moira has tied up the administrator Victoria Tennant, disguised herself in her clothes and marched out of the camp bold as brass, it'll be the most complacent of viewers who won't be pondering, "Hey, can't we follow her instead of being stuck watching the dull Kate?"
Moira does show up later on, even more frustratingly hinting at an exciting adventure on the run when we have been sitting through Kate's moping, having been renamed Offred and recruited to a well-to-do family led by powerful military man The Commander (Robert Duvall) who has no children with his barren wife Serena (Faye Dunaway) and therefore undergoes a cold ritual of sexual intercourse to conceive with Kate as a substitute. The thought that it might not be the women but the men who are infertile is an irony left unexplored by Harold Pinter's script, a curiously distant affair where any cruelty you might have expected him to capitalise on from the original is largely kept at arm's length.
There are the occasional moments where proceedings sputter into life, such as the public execution where the crazed handmaids leap upon a political prisoner and tear him to pieces (not that we see any blood until the finale), but otherwise this has all the outrage of a sullen teenager discovering feminism and complaining "It's so unfair!" Everything here trudges through the scenario which in other hands could have been as thought provoking about women's place in a repressive society as the 1984 adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four had been as a version of George Orwell's ideas about totalitarian nations, but it all looks far too antiseptic. Fair enough, the idea was to render sex as unerotically as it possibly could be, but the overriding effect was a lack of emotion, as if Kate's dilemma counted for nothing in the face of whatever muddled message about the cultural bankruptcy of the Christian right was being sternly related. Perhaps if they made it more of a thriller they might have been onto something. Music by Ryûichi Sakamoto.