Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Help

Academy Award Nominations: 4
  • Best Picture
  • Best Actress (Viola Davis)
  • Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Chastain)
  • Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer)

In 1960's Mississippi, middle class white families hire black maids to clean their houses, cook their food, and raise their young children for them. 'The Help', as they are referred to, are a struggling underclass, and look to be degraded even more soon if a new bill passes and forces them to use separate outside toilets. Meanwhile, Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan has just graduated from the University of Mississippi and aspires to be a journalist or a novelist. Upon returning home, she witnesses outright racism from her old friends who are all married with kids and hiring help. Coupled with the fact her own maid Constantine has mysteriously quit, Skeeter decides to write a book about the maids and tell their stories. At first they're hesitant, but eventually two maids step up: Aibileen, the maid to Hilly Holbrook, the 'leader' of the middle class wives in Jackson, and Minny, a maid with a reputation of being difficult...

The Help is one of those films that has 'For Your Consideration' stamped all over it on the surface: Famous faces telling the story of race relations in the south of America in the 1960's. It's award season fodder. However, to pull this off, the film can't be too schmultzy and nostalgic; it needs to be hard hitting and accurate with great performances throughout to live out the characters and give the film a sense of reality and believability. So what does The Help offer with its big screen adaptation? Emma Stone (one of the fastest rising stars in Hollywood), Jessica Chastain (one of the fastest rising stars in Hollywood), Viola Davis (former Academy award nominee), Octavia Spencer (famous character actor) and Bryce Dallas Howard (former Gwen Stacy in Spiderman and diaghter of Ron Howard). So some stellar and non-stellar names leading the way. Pleasingly, they all deliver stellar performances. The story though...

The story of The Help is touching and emotional and funny and realistic, and as a film, it works well. However, you can't help but feel walking away from this that the message of the film was "Black maids oppressed by middle class white families finally gained courage and found freedom with the help of a middle class white girl." The Help seems to suggest that the black maids needed help from white people to gain freedom from... oppressive white people, and that just seems wrong to me, to have that as the moral of the story if we're meant to be focusing on the strong-willed but oppressed black women at the centre of the film. Something seems drastically wrong with that. Don't get me wrong, Aibileen and Minny are the dramatic centre of the film, directing the plot and having the story narrated by Aibileen, showing how they fight against Hilly and her dominant racist views and how Skeeter helps them to gain a mall measure of revenge and equality. My problem is the entire film places Emma Stone's Skeeter as the protagonist, showing her entire life story and following her all the way through, and Bryce Dallas Howard's Hilly as the antagonist, reducing Aibileen and Minny to supporting players, and in a film that's meant to be focusing on the stories and lives of these two women as they try to gain some respect against an oppressive white majority, I find that shocking and downright appalling.

Unfortunately, it is what it is, nothing can be done about that, but Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer deliver two performances in this that blow almost everyone else out of the water, placing them centre stage and keeping them as the focus of attention, despite the narrative attempting to do otherwise. Viola Davis delivers an emotional, heartbreaking performance throughout and is rightly the narrator, setting the tone and becoming the example of the blatant racism and the fight against it. However, it's Octavia Spencer who steals the show, grabbing the focus and attention in every single scene she's in, playing her role as a feisty and strong maid with a heart and plenty of determination perfectly. It's Spencer and Spencer's character which make this film so immediately watchable and direct your focus throughout it's two hour run time, so she deserves a lot of credit for that. Emma Stone plays the cute, spunky, naive girl with a lot of heart here, much as she seems to do in a lot of her films, so her performance is good and solid enough, albeit unspectacular and unoriginal. Bryce Dallas Howard is also great in this, playing a character who is ostensibly 'a bitch' and making her truly unlikeable, using the character traits to portray the character's inherent racism and self-made authority amongst her friend group.

The mystery, or at least for me, is Jessica Chastain and her Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role here. I'd argue Howard portrays the better character and delivers a more striking and powerful performance. That's not to say Chastain isn't good in here role as the working class girl elevated to middle class housewife who needs Minny to teach her to cook and take care of her house, all the while trying to reinitiate herself into Howard's social circle. It's a semi-complicated role which Chastain plays well, but I'm not seeing this as a particularly special performance. She may be a great actress, but this wasn't anything special. Speaking of nothing special, the film has two endings, and though each ending does tie up one or multiple threads from the film, the way the final 15 minutes is structured seems to me to only ruin the impact of the endings. The actual end of the film is fantastic and moving and appropriate, but the film also ends about 10 minutes before that when it didn't need as that plot line could easily have remained open, and it distracts from the proper ending with Aibileen. Another shame, but after the way the film plays out, it's unsurprising, something I put down to the poor adaptation and poor direction of Tate Taylor.

Overall, it's a nice enough film to watch and tells it story solidly, it just seems to do it from the wrong perspective. The film confuses itself as to which side of the story its meant to be showing, and the entire concept of The Help suffers because of it. Saying that, if you're going to watch this film, you should do so for the performances, because there are some really great ones on offer here. The film looks good, but I put that down to the cinematographer rather than the writer/director, who doesn't seem to know what he's doing and only got this job as he knows the author (sad but true story). The Help could certainly use some help to tell its story, but its actresses need no help at all..

Rating: ***

The Help was released on 26th October 2011 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.