The subject of frogs came up the other night. Some of the people sitting around the table had read the stories about how frogs are dying off, all over the world. Others thought we were making it up. On my bad days, I am half convinced that mankind has already made some irreversible error in the management of this planet and that the frogs are trying to tell us something. Science fiction specializes in such speculations, and "The Handmaid's Tale" is a fable set in "the recent future" when most of the people on Earth have become infertile.
A few have not. To keep track of them and assure that they do their duty for the state, they are rounded up and kept in indoctrination camps, where they are prepared for their role as mothers. A few of them are rebels, especially Kate (Natasha Richardson) and Moira (Elizabeth McGovern). Moira's motivation is particularly strong because she is a "gender traitor," i.e., a lesbian. They try to escape, but are recaptured, and then Kate is assigned to the household of a party leader (Robert Duvall), his wife (Faye Dunaway) and their strapping young gardener (Aidan Quinn), who seems destined almost from his first appearance to play the role here that her gamekeeper played for Lady Chatterley.
The world inhabited by these people looks more or less like our own. They live in suburban houses and drink whiskey in the den and plant flowers in the yard, and somewhere far away a war is raging, which they follow on television. The movie is a little vague about the conditions of the war and the society; this is not a political fable, like Orwell's 1984, but a feminist one. The purpose is to isolate, exaggerate and dramatize the ways in which women are the handmaidens of society in general and men in particular.
Childbearing is the movie's metaphor of choice. Children are seen as the rightful possession of a wealthy, powerful couple like Duvall and Dunaway, and of course adoption will not do; the male must father the child himself. The methods by which this takes place are perhaps intended as a satire on the ultimate reaches of the touch-me, feel-me movement; the wife (Dunaway) is present during conception as a sort of coach and spiritual godmother.