Review: The Help (2011)

DIRECTOR: Tate Taylor.

CAST: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney, Anna Camp, Eleanor and Emma Henry, Chris Lowell, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel, Aunjanue Ellis, Sissy Spacek, Ted Welch, Leslie Jordan, Mary Steenburgen.

SYNOPSIS: Set in Mississippi during the 1960s, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Stone) is less concerned about finding a husband than her friends, desperate to become a respected writer. Troubled by the way the black women who work in her friends’ homes are treated, Skeeter turns to Aibileen Clark (Davis), asking her to disclose the truth about what really goes on behind closed doors. With others reluctant to help at first, Skeeter finds herself on the road to discovering some of the community’s best-guarded secrets and exposing the town during the civil rights movement.

Set amidst the events of the civil rights movement, for all its laughs and light heartedness, The Help deals with some incredibly traumatising events – albeit in a 12A fashion. This is bled into the second half with great ease and is a very impressive transition from the fun, caricatured portrayal of American society from the first half. Although we don’t see any mass violence, we see people escaping it, running for their lives and sporadic mentions of Jim Crow and similar figures ensure the harsh reality remains an ominous shadow over the film.

Focusing on sisterhood and family, the performances from this large female ensemble are faultless; a brilliant bunch of realistic, caricature and eccentric. Although not having her trademark comedy to fall back on here, Emma Stone delivers a wonderful performance as Skeeter, the most serious and studious of her friends. She’s also proved that she has no trouble holding (and selling) a film by herself, comedy or not.

Narrator Aibileen (Davis) tells the story through her eyes, with best friend Minny Jackson (Spencer) reluctant to disclose any of her stories to Skeeter in fear of what may happen to them. Where Aibileen is the serious one, holding a great deal of angst and woe inside, Minny is a complete contrast, delivering a hilarious performance that is wonderfully complimented by woman of the moment Jessica Chastain. For two such different personalities, the two of them are in exactly the same situation and it’s hard to see Davis and Spencer ignored by the Academy come January.

The women who hire ‘the Help’ are portrayed in caricature fashion, helmed by the unremitting Hilly Holbrook (Howard). Playing the sort of role we’ve known she was capable of during the Spidey 3 and Lady In The Water years, Howard brings a steely iciness to Holbrook; a beautiful woman who is unbelievably racist and bigoted. The opposite of Hilly, Celia Foote (Chastain) is a giggly, spontaneous bundle of fun who Hilly does not wish to associate with. An outsider herself, Celia forms an unlikely friendship with Minny and they are crucial in helping each other deal with their personal demons.

For its wonderful performances, The Help is unfortunately nothing we haven’t seen or heard before and is lacking that little something extra. This is a Disney product and it has been put in a neat little package with Disney Pixar veteran Thomas Newman coming along for the ride, providing a score that works well enough against the humour and darkness within the film – until the awful Mary J. Blige power ballad during the credits, that is. There’s no denying what a tremendous amount of joy this film brings, but one can’t help but wonder just how far Taylor could have pushed it to make it a little harsher and edgier away from the House of Mouse.

VERDICT: 3/5

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