I was eighteen when ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ came out and giddy with the powers of entry that a provisional driver’s licence gave me in terms of proof of ID.
I’ve always been fortunate that I’ve never looked my age. I’m thirty-six (thirty-seven at the end of next month) and as recently as six weeks ago was asked for proof of ID in a city centre pub.
When I not only turned eighteen but was able to prove it, I indiscriminately attended every 18-rated film that was showing purely because I could. I knew fuck all about cinema back then. I was still a year or so off discovering the Broadway Cinema, Nottingham’s iconic arthouse/independent cinema, the venue at which I gained my education in film. Where I saw the movies that count, where I talked to people who pointed me towards the directors, actors and titles that cemented my appreciation of the art form.
But before I’d received this basic grounding, before I had any concept of how high-calibre the cast, before I’d even heard of the director, Volker Schlöndorff, I wandered into a screening at the now defunct Odeon cinema of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. I’d vaguely heard of Margaret Atwood, but had not then read any of her work. I knew of Faye Dunaway from ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and Robert Duvall from ‘Apocalypse Now’.
But it was Natasha Richardson who compelled my attention. Her performance went beyond immediate. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
Let me stress how green I was then: I had no idea she was the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson (I can’t recall if I’d even seen one of his films then); I was still several years off seeing her sister Joely’s uncompromising characterisation of Lady Chatterley in Ken Russell’s TV adaptation. I simply didn’t know who she was, that she was the scion of thespian royalty. Mind you, I didn’t know that Schlöndorff had directed ‘The Tin Drum’ either, so what does that tell you?
Atwood’s novel takes that staple of science fiction, the dystopian future, and puts an excoriating feminist spin on it. Again, at that age, I’d not considered the feminist perspective before. Far from it. I came from an unlettered, unreconstructed background. My father was a truck driver, a brawling and unapologetic product of the ’50s, a man who had it ingrained in him to believe that a woman’s place is in the home; a man who saw the early influx of immigrants into Britain and formed a lifelong allegiance to the BNP; a man who believed that homosexuality was a disease and never really accepted the repeal of that evil law against gay men. A man, in short, who I have lived my life trying not to be the son of.
I mention this because it took the cumulative weight of cinema, literature and a goodly number of true friends to sway me from the worldview he stringently espoused. At a young age, and still discovering what cinema was capable of, before I embraced the possibilities of arthouse cinema, two gut-wrenching performances managed to sneak under the radar into the mainstream and presented me with a female perspective on the bigoted strictures of masculine oppression: Natasha Richardson in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and Nastassja Kinski in Jerzy Skolimowski’s adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s ‘Torrents of Spring’.
I haven’t watched ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ for a long time. Deliberately. It struck a chord with me at an age when the real me was beginning to form and I’ve been happy since then to remember what it meant to me rather than the exact structure of the film itself. Now, though, in the light of Natasha Richardson’s tragic and too-early death, I will revisit it at the earliest opportunity. A glass will be raised to her memory when I do.
(in memoriam Natasha Richardson, 11 May 1963 – 18 March 2009)