Home > Reviews > THE HANDMAID’S TALE – Ryuichi Sakamoto

THE HANDMAID’S TALE – Ryuichi Sakamoto


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The recent Hulu television adaptation of Margaret Attwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most critically acclaimed shows of all time. It tells of a dystopian future set in the aftermath of a second American Civil War, and the rise of a hard-line Christian theocracy called Gilead in what was once New York State. One of the issues that led to the civil war was a calamitous drop in fertility rates, and in Gilead women who are found to be capable of giving birth to children are commandeered and forced to work as ‘handmaids,’ essentially concubine sex-slaves who are raped monthly by their assigned regional Commanders in the hope that they become pregnant. With this religious authoritarianism, female disenfranchisement, and environmental disaster as its backdrop, the story unfolds through the eyes of a handmaid named Kate, re-named Offred, who is assigned to a family headed by the cruel Commander Waterford and his coldly indifferent wife Serena. What many people forget is that this story has been told once before, as a 1990 movie directed by the acclaimed German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff from a screenplay by Harold Pinter, which starred Natasha Richardson as Offred, Robert Duvall as the Commander, and Faye Dunaway as Serena.

The score for The Handmaid’s Tale is by the great Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, and represents the only collaboration between himself and director Schlöndorff. Sakamoto had won an Oscar for scoring The Last Emperor in 1987, but wrote almost no other film scores in the intervening years, which meant that essentially The Handmaid’s Tale was his follow-up to that acclaimed effort. As one would expect, this score is very different from the music he wrote for that lavish, historical epic; much of The Handmaid’s Tale is almost entirely electronic in nature, using an array of different synths and keyboards and samples, augmented occasionally with live percussion, live piano, a few solo strings (including what sounds like a Japanese zither), and voices. The score is anchored by a recurring 3-note theme for Kate/Offred, which often opens up into a solemn but gently attractive lament that speaks as the voice of her defiance in the face of terrible oppression and abuse. The melodic construct of the theme actually reminds me a little of the aria “Belle Nuit, Ô Nuit d’Amour” from Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann, which I’m sure is entirely coincidental – although you never know, considering that, in its original setting, the song is performed by a courtesan. It’s usually performed by synths, and is often quite dark in tone, but occasionally it offers a little sliver of happiness when it is transposed to piano or strings, when it underscores a fleeting moment of friendship or respite in Offred’s life.

The harsh realities of life under Gilead rule tends to be scored with hammering synths, relentless electronic pulses, and overwhelming moments of dissonance; the tyranny is everywhere, pervasive, and the way it effects Offred’s life – both her physical and mental wellbeing – is devastating. Towards the end of the score, as Offred finally finds the fortitude to rise up against the Commander and Serena, Sakamoto offers more insistent percussion-based action ideas, with staccato rhythmic pulses, accompanying piano clusters, and an entirely much more energetic and urgent feel. Finally, to really enhance the religious aspect of the film, the score features several hymns such as “Old Hundredth (Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow),” “Shall We Gather by the River” and “Amazing Grace,” performed with pious beauty by female choirs. The contextual application of these religious songs is, of course, chilling: the leaders of Gilead genuinely believe that their oppression and subjugation is God’s will, and that they have a divine right to subject people to it.

From a soundtrack album point of view, however, The Handmaid’s Tale suffers from a massive problem in that Sakamoto chose to structure his score as two 20-minute suites, the first containing fourteen cues, and the second thirteen. There are no track breaks, and no cue time splits on the accompanying CD information, which makes it very difficult to pick out what cues are playing at what point, and therefore it is also very difficult to apply in-film context to the accompanying soundtrack. This one sequencing decision led me to avoid this score for the longest time, which is a shame because the music is absolutely worth exploring.

For example, the first suite contains several excellent statements of Offred’s Theme; dreamy in the opening “Overture/Snow,” with more urgency via staccato pianos in “On the Bus,” with elegance and restraint in “Nocturno,” and with a little more optimism and hints of attractiveness in “Moira’s Hand” and “Kate,” both of which feature the koto zither more prominently. These are counterbalanced by the much more harsh and grating writing in “Prison Camp,” “Red Veil,” and “Pollution in City,” which veer between overwhelming oppression and murky, muddy distortion. “Moira Escapes” is an energetic but minimalist action cue for rapid piano clusters and synth string phrases. Both “Rape & Rage” and “Rape” have a touch of Wojciech Kilar about them in their overall sound; pianos and synths combine in a series of dark, intense chords, which become angrier and harsher as they develop.

The second suite opens with “Love in Nick’s Room,” the longest and most traditionally attractive statement of Offred’s theme, which underscores one of the few moments of brief happiness she experiences during her whole ordeal. Later, “My Daughter is Alive” presents her theme on solo piano with a lighter tone as she hears news of her long-missing daughter, while “Kate & Moira” offers a version of the theme that is somewhat twisted by watery synths and pianos. One very different cue is “Travesty,” which contains fluttery sampled woodwinds offset by synths that sound oddly upbeat, almost playful. The rest of the suite is all about darkness and despair – synth drones, heavy percussion, harsh textures, and dreadfully morose versions of Offred’s theme that occasionally peek through the gloom. This is the sequence of score that marks the worst of her experiences, and you can feel it through Sakamoto’s music. “Hanging” is nothing but a funereal percussion beat. “Finding the Knife” is bitter and eerie, like a chill wind.

The final part of the suite is the movie’s action finale: “Waiting for Murder,” “Killing Commander,” and “Mayday” are all more energetic: sometimes it is quite deliberately paced, with staccato writing for piano and percussion, while at other times it is intentionally frenetic and chaotic, with buzzing violin textures and intense sampled brass. The whole thing ends with a final refrain of the hymn “Old Hundredth (Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow),” an ironic conclusion that fits appropriately with the film’s uncertain and downbeat ending where the protagonists may have escaped with their lives, but the nightmarish Gilead regime remains in power.

The score for The Handmaid’s Tale is not an especially ‘fun’ listening experience, in any way, but this is to be expected considering the subject matter and the themes the film explores. Ryuichi Sakamoto gets under the skin of Gilead with his music, and brings its hellish regime and its oppressive policies to light, while offering a few moments of hope and redemption from his musical treatment of Offred. The mileage Sakamoto gets from his limited sound palette is impressive, and fans of 1980s and early 1990s synth scoring will find this to be one of the most sophisticated and accessible entries in what is, for many, a somewhat un-loved sub-genre. It’s not going to appeal to anyone whose musical tastes lie solely in the large symphonic arena, but I was personally quite taken with the stylish electronic tones Sakamoto brought to the table. However, as I mentioned, the actual album release is appalling, and is structured so badly that you would be quite forgiven for being put off by that aspect alone. Let’s hope a more intelligently-sequenced re-release is forthcoming at some point in the future.

Buy the Handmaid’s Tale soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Suite 1 [Overture/Snow/Prison Camp/On the Bus/Old Hundredth (Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow)/Nocturno/Moira’s Hand/Red Veil/Kate/Rape & Rage/The Kiss/Pollution in City/Moira Escapes/Rape/Shall We Gather by the River] (20:50)
  • Suite 2 [Love in Nick’s Room/Amazing Grace/My Daughter is Alive/Car Bomb/Travesty/Kate & Moira/Hanging/Particicution/Finding the Knife/Waiting for Murder/Killing Commander/Mayday/Old Hundredth (Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow)] (20:28)

Running Time: 41 minutes 18 seconds

GNP Crescendo GNPD-8020 (1990)

Music composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto. Recorded and mixed by Fernando Kral. Edited by Robin Clarke, Christopher Brooks and Jim Harrison. Album produced by Ryuichi Sakamoto.

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