The Help (12A)

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard

Geoffrey Macnab
Sunday 30 October 2011 23:50

Just occasionally The Help, Tate Taylor's film about black maids and their white bosses in early 1960s Mississippi, hints at what was really at stake in the Civil Rights era.

There are fleeting references to incidents such as the lynching of Emmett Till, the teenage African-American boy killed because he was alleged to have flirted with a white woman. The film, based on Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel, includes a shocking scene in which a maid is arrested by racist white cops. It also homes in on the politics of peeing: the well-bred white ladies' horror at sharing bathrooms with their staff. A crucial scene involves one of these white ladies (quite literally) eating shit. However, this film is also an old-fashioned Hollywood weepie with a sentimental undertow.

There are some magnificent elements here. Stephen Goldblatt's eye-popping cinematography accentuates the beauty of the landscapes in Jackson, Mississippi. Some of the character acting is of an extremely high order. Bryce Dallas Howard (not normally a villainess) excels as the nastiest of the white matriarchs. Jessica Chastain gives a moving and funny performance as a Marilyn Monroe-like ingénue, too naïve to sharethe other white women's prejudices. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer bring a weary stoicism and humour to their roles as the maids, while Emma Stone is impish and very lively as "Skeeter," the college girl who writes their story. The downside is the mawkishness and the rambling narrative structure. This material would surely have worked better in an HBO-style miniseries than in a one-off feature.

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