Mississippi, the 1960s. Would-be journalist Skeeter (Stone) decides to write a book about The Help, the black maids who work for the white families in the area. Interviewing local maid Aibileen (Davis) in secret, Skeeter reveals what really goes on betw
Already a hit at the US box office, this civil rights-era drama, based on the bestseller by Kathryn Stockett, knows exactly which buttons to push and when. It’s a stirring story of righteous, downtrodden women rising up against years of inequality and poor treatment: cruelty at worst and condescension at best. There’s a sparky heroine, Skeeter (Emma Stone), who does what we hope we’d have done in the circumstances: champion the underdog and see through the era’s racial prejudice with objective eyes.
It is troubling, as some American critics have pointed out, that the maids only gain the courage to stand up to their employers thanks to a white woman. While Stone gives her sharp-eyed and quick-tongued character every ounce of relatability she can, you can’t help but wince occasionally at the blind gratitude heaped upon her by working-class black women who appear to see her as their lone saviour.
In almost every other respect (save perhaps the slightly overlong running time), The Help is a very good film. Viola Davis is heartbreaking as Aibileen, the warm and wise woman who’s brought up 17 children who may love her more than they do their own mothers. And yet she must say her goodbyes to these children as if they’re strangers. Try holding back the tears in those scenes. Meanwhile, the wonderful Allison Janney brings a refreshingly nuanced performance as Skeeter’s mother, one of the few characters whose moral compass is wavering rather than firmly black or white. Definitely 100 per cent baddie is Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the monstrous socialite who campaigns for separate toilets for staff and ostracises bimboish newcomer Celia (a blonde Jessica Chastain, playing enjoyably against type, if she already has such a thing).
Also bringing humour to the table is Octavia Spencer as Minny, a bolshy maid prone to temper tantrums and pranks: just watch the sparks between her and Hilly fly. The sunshine pours from the screen, too: this looks terrific and boasts beautiful period detail in the costumes and set design.
All in all, it’s an exceptionally well-made drama with a quality cast, top performances, a moving story, fizzy dialogue and a keen eye for small-town social mores. It may be a tad patronising occasionally, but like its heroine Skeeter, it’s well-meaning and hugely likable despite its flaws.
A simplistic portrayal of historic race relations boosted by terrific performances from some of the best actresses working in Hollywood today. Sure, its corny, but it mostly works.