Thursday, 3 November 2011

THE HELP (2011) - 4 STARS

"Change begins with a whisper"


This year has started to get quite good for film now after it seemed like the blockbusters would take control of the Best Film crown. In recent weeks I've been left emotionally drained from watching the brutal WARRIOR and last week, the harrowing WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, proving that there should be some solid contenders for when awards season comes. But after watching THE HELP, I can now add that to the list of impressive films starting to end this year promisingly. Producer Steven Spielberg who made the under-appreciated THE COLOUR PURPLE back in 1985 brings us back to the tough times of pre-civil rights with a film that boasts a mostly female-dominated cast and a story of courage and hope as white and black becomes the centre of attention on the big screen once again.

In early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, bright young graduate 'Skeeter' Phelan (Emma Stone) sets her sights on becoming a successful journalist and after getting a job working for the Jackson newspaper, she looks to prove her credentials as an upcoming talent by writing a story with bite. In her town which is racially scorned, she becomes appalled by the way African-American maids are treated and decides that she wants to focus the story on their perspective. Enter two of the maids; the subtle Aibileen (Viola Davis) and robust Minny (Octavia Spencer). Whilst Aibileen is treated more fairly by her employer, she is unhappy about the way her employer feeds her own child and it is clear that she wants to give her story regarding the treatment of the maids. Minny on the other hand refuses to be pushed around by anyone but is badly treated by her ignorant social-queen boss Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) only to be sacked though she takes revenge by serving up a dish best served horribly (quite literally!). Though she gets blacklisted by Hilly, Minny ends up working for ditzy but big-hearted Celia (Jessica Chastain) and the two form a strong bond together. Skeeter however looks to delve into the tales that The Help (the group of maids) have put up with when it comes to their white employers knowing that they could risk their own lives for the sake of ridiculing those who have mistreated them....

Unknown director Tate Taylor adapts the acclaimed novel from Kathryn Stockett with purposeful tenacity as the tale of how the African-American maids in Jackson were treated gives us a harsh but satisfying story that makes it watchable and entertaining. It reveals a feelgood message of womanhood and liberation overshadowing the Civil Rights movement and the ugliness of discrimination and segregation. The detail is well constructed with the 1950s/60s setting being presented well, from the stunning art direction to the inferior costumes and hairstyles. It is also quite rare to have so many developed characters in one film given the strong female cast which is without doubt one of the great female ensembles. Emma Stone continues to vary her acting roles as a person determined to support The Help with their quest for independence while breaking out of her own alienated environment. But it is the two main black actors who overshadow Stone throughout the film as experienced actors Davis and Spencer (both Oscar-worthy) provide two African-American women with completely opposite personalities who refuse to be mistreated. Davis begins and ends the film with distraught emotion especially when it comes to looking after her white employer's daughter whereas Spencer provides the biggest laughs throughout thanks to her sassiness but also suffers deep inside when it comes to her mistreatment. There are some characters we immediately connect with, while we boo and hiss at others particularly Bryce Dallas Howard's character. Always associated as the actress daughter of director Ron Howard, Bryce goes against type with a repulsive and cold hearted performance and is easily dislikeable from beginning to end. Almost as sinister as last week's big screen villain Kevin. Also surprising me with her adorable performance is the busy Jessica Chastain who has appeared in 5(!) films this year but probably gives her best role in this film as the dim but loveable Celia who seeks help from Minny in trying to improve her image but finds herself wrongfully outcasted by Hilly and the others. She practically charms in every scene is in. There's also limited but scene-stealing moments from the likes of Alison Janney, Mary Steenburgen and especially Sissey Spacek, to lend experience. Through this fine female cast, the script brings out humour to point out the shameful behavior of those who see themselves as superior (Miss Howard again who finds herself on the receiving end of countless moments that allow the audience to cheer with satisfying delight).

However there is still problems with this film that can only be reflected on how it will go down with various types of audiences. Firstly male viewers (excluding me) will probably be put off by the mostly-female cast which may give the vibe that this is more of a chick-flick set in the Civil Rights. Even more so is the way males are represented throughout particularly Skeeter's boyfriend Stuart who comes across as selfish and rude though despite brief romance between the pair, his character shows his true colours upon finding out about her involvement with the book. The other men are mostly background characters who don't add anything to the film whatsoever. Another problem is that it maybe too sugar-coated with the way African-Americans are made out as always being good, we never see anyone of that race being bad but its a case of being careful with the way most films focus on race and whether the result turns out well.

VERDICT: This delightful story will no doubt be one of the feelgood films of the year with a flawless ensemble and a crisp portrayal of the setting which shows a troubled time that brings out good (and bad) from some of its characters. It'll also probably take a while to look at chocolate pie again....

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