By Ralph Novak
March 26, 1990 12:00 PM

Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall

Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 ultra-feminist novel, this is an extraordinarily well-acted, cleanly presented film. The message—men are ruthless exploiters of women—comes across as strikingly as a kick to the parts women don’t have. And while men may be offended by the ease with which male director Volker (The Tin Drum) Schlondorff accepts the sexist argument he’s delivering, there’s no question that he makes Atwood’s point in provocative ways. Her novel, adapted here by screenwriter Harold Pinter, used a futuristic parable that’s often reminiscent of 1984. The setting is the United States in some not-too-distant time when ecological disaster and war have rendered most of the population sterile, so fertile young women are herded together, taught subservience and then farmed out to childless couples of the ruling class for childbearing. Richardson (Fat Man and Little Boy) is affecting as a woman who is captured while trying to flee the country with her husband and little girl. She eventually ends up as the consort of Duvall, a high-ranking security official in the reactionary-times-two government. Duvall, at his steely best, is chillingly convincing as a man who thinks nothing of courting his young consorts—adding a bit of romance to what is supposed to be a pure business relationship—then condemning them to certain death when they don’t get pregnant. Faye Dunaway, looking and acting better than she has in years, lends a reptilian sort of unease to the movie as Duvall’s frustrated wife. Elizabeth McGovern nicely mixes defiance and playfulness as a lesbian rebel Richardson meets during her training, and Aidan Quinn, as accomplished as any actor of his generation, projects a kind of indifferent brooding as Duvall’s driver (he is also the film’s token nondamnable male).

The argument that men treat women as if they were babymaking machines could hardly be more starkly presented. Whatever its validity—and it does have a certain ’60s style fanaticism to it—it will provoke lots of lively discussions on the way home from the theater. No biting, please. (R)