The Help

The Help

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Playing out like a sort of domesticated, cuddly puppy of a companion piece to the altogether more dangerous Mississippi Burning, The Help takes a crowd-pleasing, female-centric approach to the exploration of endemic racism in the 1960s US.

Here, lynchings are swapped for lavender and the focus is on prejudice in the kitchen - where racism is considered just about as wholesome as mom's apple pie by the residents of Jackson, Mississippi. Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan, however, is young, gifted and white, and refuses to play by the town's myopic rules. She sees an opportunity to both tell an untold story and further her own writing aspirations by writing a book from the perspective of 'the help'.

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Understandably, the black maids of the town are reticent to reveal all for fear of losing any livelihood they have, but two of them, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) see it as a risk worth taking and so the story of their lives - and by extension, those around them - unfolds.

The chief concern is that Tate Taylor, adapting from Kathryn Stockett's novel, presents us with the perfect time-capsule of the Sixties, inviting us to peer in and look and laugh at our forebears from a point of modern superiority. It's a stance that leaves an uneasy feeling, if you really consider how far we have or haven't come. However, if you are willing to accept that this is an exploratory snapshot that seeks to confine itself to the times it is portraying and leave any consideration of modern-day echoes to the conscience of the viewer, this is a good story, well told.

Immersive from the outset, the performances by all of the main protagonists are startlingly good, with each actress bringing an individuality to their characters that marks them out and makes them feel alive. Stone shines as the ahead-of-her-time but slightly gauche Skeeter, while Davis brings emotional weight to the script, so that even though you can see the tear-jerk moments coming from a mile away, she still has you reaching for the tissues. Spencer, meanwhile, pitches her performance perfectly to keep it on the right side of stereotype. There's a gaggle of talent on display in the supporting performances, too, from the omnipresent Jessica Chastain's white trash sweetie Celia - who needs an altogether different sort of Help from maid Minny - to Bryce Dallas Howard's stuck-up viper Hilly and Sissy Spacek's devilishly comic turn as her elderly mother.

The story is also more complex than it may initially appear, exploring the ideas of bravery in unexpected places and finding room to examine the way that no matter what side of the coin you find yourself on, sometimes you cling to the status quo - even when its bad for you.

Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt lives up to his name, bringing a golden glow to proceedings, the pace of which has the gentle flow and sweetness of molasses, ofset by just about the right amount of comic acidity. And if some of the emotional notes are a heavily coated and deep fried, it doesn't make them any less attractive.

Reviewed on: 26 Oct 2011
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The Help packshot
An aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960s decides to write a book detailing the African American Maid's point of view on the White families they work for.
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Director: Tate Taylor

Writer: Tate Taylor, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett

Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O'Reilly

Year: 2011

Runtime: 146 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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