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The Help - Review

The Help

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3.5 out of 5

TATE Taylor’s film adaptation of close friend Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel The Help is every bit the underdog story, from conception to casting right through to its success.

In book form, it was rejected by 60 literary agents before finally being published five years after its initial conception, while Taylor also had to fight to persuade a distributor to get it made. He then had to go to bat for at least one cast member.

Now, though, the film arrives off the back of a scorching US release and with Oscar predictions surrounding at least three of its principal players. Given the strength of its cast and the emotive nature of its themes – civil rights for black maids in 1960s Mississippi – it’s hardly a surprise to find it suddenly being considered awards bait.

Yet, while certainly flawed in the way that it glosses over history and, admittedly, puts a white woman as co-lead in a film that’s arguably a black woman’s story, it remains an enjoyable ensemble piece that deftly mixes drama and comedy.

When aspiring journalist Skeeter (Emma Stone) decides to write a book about the black maids who work for the white families in the Jackson area, she sets about interviewing local maid Aibileen (Viola Davis) in secret in the hope of winning her confidence and persuading her colleagues to also lift the lid on what really goes on between these women and their employers.

But she also meets resistance from her own friends, including the high and mighty Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), who has a tempestuous relationship at best with her own hired help, the equally bullish Minny (Octavia Spencer).

Taylor’s film may clock in at a seemingly endurance testing two hours and 20 minutes but it’s surprising just how much time flies thanks in no small part to watching such a strong female cast at play.

And while certainly simplistic in nature (Howard’s Hilly is 100% no-good and worth her comeuppance, for instance), there’s still enough to ensure that the talents of those involved aren’t squandered.

Davis, for example, is a study in quiet dignity – by turns heartbreaking in the way that she is made to feel second class, yet inspiring in the way that she thoughtfully allies herself with Skeeter.

Stone, in the showier of the roles, is full of feisty determination as the equal rights advocate who is undeterred by the scorn of her white friends, while Spencer is a fun mix of the volatile and occasionally ill-tempered as Minny.

And there’s equally strong support, too, from the ever-impressive Jessica Chastain, as blonde newcomer Celia, who finds herself cruelly ostracised for her bimbo-ish ways, and Sissy Spacek and Allison Janey as two mothers got in the mix.

Taylor’s direction keeps things moving along at a fairly sharp pace, while his script – adapted from Stockett’s novel – is witty enough to paper over the cracks posed by its watered down version of history. A little more grit might have gone even further but at least his film isn’t labouring the points it is trying to make.

Overall, then, this is a crowd-pleasing ensemble drama that has plenty to offer both sexes and which, curiously for all its narrative flaws, makes you want to find out more about the history it exposes. The Oscar talk for the likes of Stone, Spencer and Davis (in particular) doesn’t appear to be misplaced either.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 146mins
UK Release Date: October 26, 2011