Release Date (UK) – October 26th 2011
Certificate (UK) – 12A
Running time – 146 minutes
Director – Tate Taylor
Country – USA
Starring – Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney
Already a hit and garnering early Oscar buzz in the United States, The Help arrives in our cinemas this week. The story of the novel that’s the source material here is one of those obligatory success-against-the-odds stories. It took five years to pen and was rejected by 60 publishers before author Kathryn Stockett finally got lucky and it went from sleeper hit, to New York Times Bestseller to Awards worthy film adaptation. The film is set in the 1960s in Mississippi where an aspiring journalist Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) decides to write a book about the eponymous ‘help’; the black women who are employed as maids by white families in the local area. She conducts secret interviews with two women, Abileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) which breaks the rules of the strictly governed society and as more truths are uncovered the three find themselves in an unlikely friendship that inspires each to break their own personal boundaries.
The Help was adapted and directed by Tate Taylor, who is a friend of Stockett’s, and clearly has a way with coaxing tremendous performances from a cast. The never less than charming Emma Stone is solid as Skeeter, the upper-class girl set for early marriage who rebels in an effort to achieve independence. Octavia Spencer, who read the part of Minny on Stocket’s book tours is devilishly funny and belligerent adding a sense of humour to the proceedings.
Viola Davis, who has been relatively quiet since her Oscar nominated turn in the wonderful Doubt, finally shines in a leading role. She’s a tremendous physical presence with eyes that could bore into your soul as she recounts her time as a maid. Her intonation is measured, and the way she masks her pain as she raises children, who love her like a mother but can never reciprocate that affection, can illicit tears in a way that never feels mawkish or burdened with sentimentality. It’s just a shame the rest of the film can’t match her when she’s not on screen.
Despite a great cast, The Help is a troubling film in which poor black women can only gain the courage to stand up to their social oppressors once they are saved and empowered by a white woman. Despite the aforementioned Stone performance, it’s difficult not to grimace at the scenes where the maids heap praise on Skeeter like she is some kind of saviour. As a parable for bourgeois liberal audiences, it somewhat looks down on the politics of the 1960s and becomes one of those films that, lacking any context, seems to suggest that civil rights problems in America ended when one women started a writing project. As these women open up and discuss there are protest marches and political activity abound in the country, but crucially Taylor never lets us see more than a glimpse on TV of this. This is a message movie with a regrettably unchallenging message about the saintly maids and their almost cartoonishly villainous employers, such as Bryce Dallas Howard’s super-bitch Hilly whose scatological comeuppance could have been penned by the Farrelly Brothers.
The Help is also overly long at 140 plus minutes, however it is a great looking film. At the request of the author it was filmed entirely in Mississippi and benefits a great deal from the authenticity of the location shooting. The Help is an entertaining film, with well written sparky dialogue and some great performances, but to appreciate it on that level you have to divorce those elements from the unsubtle and short sighted racial politics. Heartfelt, but ultimately misguided.