September 18, 2017

Silent Battle Cry: How 'The Handmaid's Tale' Speaks Volumes Through Visuals

When words fail visuals speak.

In the dystopian world of Gilead, where a totalitarian theonomy has enslaved fertile women to turn them into child-bearing servants of the state, civil disobedience is subtle and revolutionaries keep their battle cries under their tongues. Being "under His eye" not only sets rigid restrictions on what the citizens of the former United States are permitted to do or say, but it turns one's mind into a place that serves as both Promised Land for free thought and war room to plot resistance. 

Cinematically this gives The Handmaid's Tale fewer options to communicate the harrowing stories of Offred and her fellow handmaidens, but director Reed Morano and cinematographer Colin Watkinson's audiovisual approach to the series creates a unique style of storytelling that allows the silent rebel yell of an entire group of marginalized women to be heard.

In this video essay, ScreenPrism digs deep into the techniques used in the show that grant us entry into places to which not even the Republic of Gilead has access.

Though dialogue is a powerful tool in storytelling, there are many other tools that filmmakers can utilize to communicate to their audiences. Morano (as well as the show's other directors) and Watkinson put a number of them to work, including:

  • Framing
  • Choreography
  • Color
  • Voiceover
  • Music
  • Flashbacks

Each one of these techniques speak to one or more of the numerous themes, motifs, and messages in The Handmaid's Tale, from the subtle framing that literally marginalizes the handmaidens by putting them on the edges of the frame to the use of color that is used to not only neatly categorize each social group in Gilead, but to also reveal their characteristics and personalities on a deeper level.

Using these cinematic techniques, as opposed to overly expositional dialogue, makes for not only incredibly economic storytelling that packs more information into its runtime, but it also is much more interesting, allowing viewers to engage with the material to fill in gaps and read between the lines to uncover the hidden meaning beneath the visuals.

The camera, then, becomes the true "eye of God" that peers deeply into the inner world of Offred, who appears to be compliant toward the will of the state but is just as much of an activist as she was before she was enslaved. Nothing is what it seems. We see that her red cloak and bonnet are her battledress, her gentle liturgical responses are subtle challenges to the established order, and even her silence is her emboldening her individuality and planning the next stage of her mission to escape capture.

In Gilead, nothing is what it seems—not even silence.     

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