Kate is a 'Handmaid' - a non-voluntary surrogate mother enslaved to wealthy families - in an infertile America ruled by a Bible-bashing regime. Oppressed by the state and the jealousy of those who cannot procreate themselves, Kate discovers that there are others, like her, who are ready to resist.
By trying to create a decent-looking science-fiction movie while appearing to spend no money, Volker Schlondorff ends up directing a film that looks like it was shot in a Blake's Seven gravel pit, creating his future republic of Gilead via newsreels, little bits of fake hi-tech, roadblocks, and a few funny hats. This leaves even this distinguished cast too much to do in a serious and unpleasant story of life in an ugly future autocracy where a largely infertile people struggle to propagate their race, and lesbians are hung for "gender treachery".
Snatched from the scene of her husband's brutal murder, Kate (Richardson) is trained as a "handmaid" - a surrogate mother for a childless couple (Duvall and Dunaway). Each month, echoing a bitter ritual from Genesis, Kate lies on top of the wife, while Duvall indulges in a bit of approved and self-perpetuating rumpo. Predictably enough, Kate and the Commander soon begin to meet in secret and it is this gradual and uncomfortable relationship which provides the film's more interesting moments. Unfortunately, this all gets swept away as Harold Pinter's screenplay of Margaret Atwood's book focuses instead on the secret resistance movement, Kate's unlikely relationship with a randy chauffeur (Quinn), and a plot to murder the Commander.
Duvall and Dunaway do the business as well as ever, but in the end they're all defeated by a lumpy plot that avoids confronting the serious issues in favour of some bangs and crashes and yet more funny hats.
Comes across as a TV movie and overall, a disappointment - a high calibre cast and concept completely squandered