Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Help - Review

The large cast works well together, but The Help owes its entire success to Viola Davis' vivid, authentic  performance as tired, burdened, compassionate Aibileen, followed closely by Octavia Spencer's fiery Minny. Both actresses should have no trouble making their way onto Oscar ballots. Although Emma Stone's Skeeter is the ostensible lead, the film starts and ends with Aibileen's voice over, every other actress is at her best when they share a scene with her and she is the heart, soul & spine of the film. It feels very justified that she is being campaigned as Lead Actress. Octavia Spencer, meanwhile, is far more than the supporting comic relief as fiesty, "sassmouthing" Minny. She is a real, strong-willed woman with an unpredictable, unstoppable fire in her belly and an unwillingness to suffer fools gladly. But she does have all the funniest bits.

On the white side of things, Emma Stone is naturally charming as the independent, "different" girl - the hair and make up department do a very good job of playing down her looks- but Alison Janney and, particularly, Jessica Chastain are the highlights among the white "madams", as morally compromised cancer patient / concerned grandchildren-less mother and tippling, floozy farmgirl, respectively. Bryce Dallas Howard, however, struggles to bring life to her callous, shallow villain, settling too often for cartoonish mean girl antics. It is as much a fault of the writing than the performance that Hilly is a shrill, relentless ubher bitch who is easy to hate, but very difficult to take seriously, but if Howard could have surrendered herself to Hilly's misguided convictions, she could have been a formidable force to be reckoned with. As it is, Howard herself can't seem to take her quite seriously, and drops the ball on the films funniest sequence - the pie. There is a line that divides an over-the-top character from an over-the-top performance and, unfortunately, Howard lands on the wrong side of that line. But Viola Davis more than makes up for it.

Although understandably some of the character detail is lost in the transition from novel to screen, The Help is nevertheless a strong and relevant story, effectively evoking a frankly disturbing chapter of American History (not only for the blatant racism, but for the demented picket-fence suburban dream). Director Tate Taylor continually favours the serious side of the story over the easy laughs and relies on his cast to bring home the message. I wish I could say The Help was merely a window into a dark past, but it is regrettably still a window on our present. I can think of more than one example, within my own, ostensibly liberal, circle of friends and family where maids still have "their own" plates and cups set aside because they "like having their own." Perhaps because the underlying darkness of the film still rings true, The Help, although not without its flaws, is the first film I have sat in since As it is in Heaven to leave a packed theatre nailed to its seats until the final credits have rolled.