'The Help' (dir: Tate Taylor, 2011) Cert: 12A
As the Autumn months roll on, pictures that are bound to gain some Oscar buzz start hitting our screens and I would be incredibly surprised if Tate Taylor's big-screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's novel 'The Help' is not included in all the hype and hearsay that will soon be fluttering around the cinema world. I was lucky enough to get an advance screening of this picture (it isn't released theatrically in the UK until 28th October - check me out!) and after reading an abundance of praise from our Atlantic allies, it's a fair assumption to think one's expectations were reasonably high. So, here's what I made of it.
'The Help' follows Eugeina "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone); a young ambitious writer working in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. "Skeeter", much like many of Jackson's young people, has been surrounded by African-American maids her entire life and these woman have raised her from a tender age. Whilst the majority of the wealthy residents believe their maids are just people designed for work, "Skeeter" finds great distress in their mistreatment and decides to write a book based upon interviews with the maids she comes in contact with. Her book influences and soon close friends Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) become enthusiastic by the idea of telling 'their side of the story' but feelings of doubt and fear easily consume the maids due to living in such a racially hostile environment.
Cinematic depictions of race stories can certainly be dividing - films such as 'American History X' (1998) show the extremities of certain people and indeed of human nature. Personally I find these studies of race far more encapsulating than the pictures that force guilt and feelings of repression upon an audience. The films of Tyler Perry are very much a product of this, as was the successful drama 'Precious' back in 2009 which I absolutely hated. Racism themes need to emotionally engage viewers rather than punish them and almost blame them. Whilst audiences were supposed to feel great empathy with 'Precious', I felt like the film was telling me off for being a lower middle-class white person which consequently did not allow me to attach to the picture.
Thankfully, 'The Help' uses subtlety and heart to tell it's tale and it succeeds tremendously. Fundamentally, the film is sweet and gentle in it's telling of a depressing and unquestionably ill period in our recent history, but rather than being tied down by the weight of grit or realism, Taylor's picture uses moments of great humour and a sincerely rendered character group to bewitch viewers and become immersed in the private lives of these extraordinary women and the daily struggles they faced at the hands of the obtuse and unloving.
It's with these mixed emotions that place 'The Help' quite comfortably into the 'Dramedy' sub-genre. It never feels wrong to giggle through the film, but it wouldn't feel right to have a silly grin wiped across your face for it's entire duration. Clocking in at a frankly staggering 146 minutes, Taylor's adaptation is a long picture but with the time comes a greatly rewarding, insightful and emotionally challenging triumph. The film never felt slack or that it needed those all important editing scissors so it seems that 2 hours and 26 minutes was the exact time needed to translate the novel to the silver screen.
|Still from 'The Help' (dir: Tate Taylor, 2011)|
Another great element about the picture is it's UK certificate - thankfully the BBFC have granted 'The Help' with a 12A rather than a 15. Although the film has no scenes of physical violence or other unruly things, it's subject matter and racially abusive language could have been enough to warrant a 15 but luckily a lower classification has been decided. One of the most important themes in the film is the power of friendship and how anything is possible to overcome when you have somebody strong to lean on - this is such an important and beautifully executed message that speaks volumes and it's great that parents will be able to take their children to experience this upon it's cinematic release. This film would be great for a mother and daughter and would certainly give young women perfect role models to admire.
'The Help' sports a wonderfully balanced script that's funny, informative and touching yet laden with melancholy and bitterness. These different emotive states compliment the film's tone and setting making it a journey filled with ups and downs as well as laughs and tears. Although it's trailers and promotional material may make the feature look like a bubbly 'Chick-Flick', there is plenty for both sexes of all ages here and I defy anyone who isn't moved, touched or swept up by this film. It's rare for me to sob in any film, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't shed a few tears. It also looks fabulous; from the 60s setting and dress to the rich sun-soaked colour pallet, 'The Help' is somewhat of a visual feast.
The world loves an underdog story and there is many scenes in this picture that make audiences want to pump their fists and root for the maids. These emotions are proof that viewers are engaged and involved in the characters - we are happy when they succeed and are filled with sorrow when they are mistreated. We can also find many reasons to cheer through "Skeeter" as she's the one who makes the stand and strives for change; her actions determine future events.
'The Help' is drenched in electric performances - Stone is sublime as "Skeeter" and has proven that comedy roles are not her limitation. Admittedly she is mighty funny here, but she is driven by emotion, spirit and belief, all of which are incredibly impressive and played with great honesty. It could earn her an Oscar nod but it's possibly too early to tell. Davis is wonderful as Aibileen; her bruised nature and her haunting past at first define her but once her story is able to be told, she becomes a different woman. Davis puts strength and dignity into this incredibly moving character portrayal and it would be no shock if she was Oscar nominated.
Bryce Dallas Howard also stars in the movie as Hilly Horbrook; a nasty and manipulative woman who enjoys her power over the maids and does her best to try and racially divide homes by installing separate toilets for coloured people. She gives a tremendous performance and is so easy to dislike it's unbelievable - one has never truly rated her acting abilities but she is excellent here. Perhaps the picture's highest acting awards go to Spencer and Jessica Chastain who plays Minny's 'boss' Celia Foote. The pair has such charming and good-natured chemistry that offers some much needed comic relief and shows that not every household in Jackson that has a maid is a unpleasant workplace. Spencer and Chastain both act their socks off and give rounded and mesmerising performances.
'The Help' is unlikely to excite everyone, but for those who do take the time to go and see it will have an emotional, heartfelt and amusing experience. It's ability to snap from one feeling to the next in an instant along with a cracking script and complimenting casting is what makes the film stay fresh, involving and successful. This is an exquisite example of literature filmmaking and it's amongst 2011's best offerings - I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Rich, elegant and involving - 'The Help' is a cavalcade of emotions, A-grade performances and beautiful scripting. Make a date to see it.
By Chris Haydon