TV reviews

Looking back at… The Handmaid’s Tale (Season 1)

It’s the close-ups of Elisabeth Moss that get to you after a while. Never has a close-up of a leading actress on a television show or movie been such a visceral experience on its own, even if it’s a scene as fundamentally simple as Offred sitting in a room contemplating the events of her life.

There are some shows that are just meant to be binge watched, and there are some that really should be taken in small doses. The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely the latter, not because it’s bad or anything, far from it, but because its level of intensity and drama carries such an impact that to watch any more than two episodes at a time means you really needs to sit back, take a breath and compose your thoughts.

Produced for Hulu, and airing on Channel 4 on British television, the premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale emerged at a time when both conservative politics and feminism have become intense subjects of conversation that merge together whether we like it or not. Margaret Atwood’s novel may have been published in 1985, but this faithful adaptation has shown that it is a piece of work that has remained forever relevant and important.

Anchored by a powerful central performance from Elisabeth Moss, superb writing based on Atwood’s novel from a writersroom headed up by Bruce Miller, and a visual and directing style established by Reed Morano, The Handmaid’s Tale is truly a television show that one could be described as cinematic.

This is television that proudly comes on like arthouse cinema. Comparisons have been made on a visual level to the works of Stanley Kubrick, and it’s very easy to see that, especially in shot compositions and its use of lighting, but unlike the chilly air that marked the work of Kubrick, both Atwood’s story, Miller’s scripting, Adam Taylor’s on-edge music score and Morano’s impactful direction means that from its opening moments, The Handmaid’s Tale has you in the palm of its hands and will not let go until the very final shot of its finale, itself the end of Atwood’s novel, leaving the show with the option of going in line with Atwood’s epilogue or paving its on way going forward.

With a somewhat fractured narrative that frequently jumps backwards in time to Offred’s happier memories, and the time when she was June, we experience every little bit of her anger, confusion and emotional state over the course of its intense ten-hour running time.

Her experiences under the eye of the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski, making one instantly forget her charming, kick-ass role on Chuck with one of the most hatred fuelled characters in living memory) make for some of the most emotionally challenging television produced in years, invoking so many responses from the audience as you go along, mostly anger and disgust, but also tears of emotion and anguish. The show is one that puts you through the ringer, hoping for a burst of light in its already encroached darkness. It seldom ever happens. One use of Simple Minds on the soundtrack (yes, that song from The Breakfast Club) plays at a truly optimistic moment, but is cut off instantly before we get too comfortable.

In the middle of it all you have what should surely become one of the television’s most iconic performances. Elisabeth Moss, as well as the supporting cast, clad in a white bonnet and red robe, has already become something of a poster image in how many feel about the current US administration handling on certain feminine issues, of course making the show and Atwood’s novel even more relevant.

Moss, who of course has form in starring in both Mad Men and Top of the Lake, as well as making a mark early in her career in The West Wing, is showing herself to be the key acting talent of quality television. Not since Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s performance in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s  The Passion of Joan of Arc in 1928 has a leading actress been filmed in almost torturous close-ups in the way that Morano establishes within the series’ first three hours. It takes a very special performer to not only convey pure emotion in such a manner, but to hold the audience within their grasp as purely emotionally as the way Moss does throughout this.

Nearly every episode here has an inordinate amount of time where Moss is staring nearly right into the camera lens, daring you to feel what she is feeling. The effect is overbearing and powerful. Praise be because this truly is the best piece of work produced in any medium in the year 2017.

Are you a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale? Will you be watching the new season? Let us know.

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