28 October 2011

THE HELP- Review

Looking at this week's new releases, Tintin doesn't really have any female characters, to speak of, and in The Ides of March, (review coming next week) Evan Rachel Wood is essentially the only woman involved, and she's a victim. So while it's nice to see a "women's picture" like The Help comes along, it's also nice to see that people have gotten over this year's bout of Bridesmaids syndrome, whereby films are good cos they have women with brains and stuff. Just because mainstream Hollywood is only just realising this, doesn't mean it's anything new. Then again, this film probably broaches race issues more prominently than gender issues.

Based on the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help begins with a budding writer, Skeeter, returning from college to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. She's distressed to find that her family's maid, Constantine, has seemingly quit, and even more perturbed to find the white women of Jackson spearheading a movement to make separate toilet arrangements mandatory for black people. Skeeter decides to compile a book of the servants' stories, collaborating with maids Aibileen and Minny to gather interviews about their working conditions.

It's emphatically a story that takes place with the civil rights movement in the background, during a lengthy process of social change, in a place with prehistoric racial inequalities. It's got a 12A certificate, and despite going as far as to highlight the threat of violence to the black community if they step out of line, it's essentially a fluffy take on a thorny subject. It's a feel-good film, to some extent, and so it doesn't get too embroiled in the national civil rights movement, so as to correctly avoid the implication that a gorgeous, freckled white girl was the one who spurred black people to stand up for themselves.

Happily, Emma Stone's Skeeter is not the Great White Hope that she appears from a cursory glance at the plot. The main character of the piece is arguably Aibileen, who is played incredibly by Viola Davis. Although she's impressed in a number of supporting roles in the last few years, she takes centre-stage in The Help and brings a lot of warmth and stoicism to the long-suffering Aibileen. Despite playing the foil to a scene-stealing Octavia Spencer as Minny, hers is the performance that shines through.

As an actor's film, (or more specifically, an actress' film) it has a number of other great performances too. Particularly good is Bryce Dallas Howard, as a Stepford racist arch-bitch called Hilly Holbrook. Essentially the villain of the piece, she's simperingly poisonous in a manner that reminded me of Imelda Staunton in the Harry Potter films, all pink and hateful. Howard's character literally thinks her shit doesn't stink, as she lobbies for alternative toilet arrangements, but the cruelty of her character isn't only racially motivated. She's snobby towards pretty much everyone, and Howard does a bang-up job of creating an odious character.

And don't get me wrong, I wanted to see Hilly get her comeuppance as much as anyone. My problem is that the film is 146 minutes long, and that's an awful lot of time for her to get an awful lot of comeuppance. In fact, the more she's punished, the more you come to think that her nasty and blinkered outlook was built up even more, just so it didn't seem entirely disproportionate. And yet she is an odious character, who deserved it, so I really think that's more to do with the film being overlong than it is to do with the plot or characters. The film could comfortably have lost about 20 minutes in the edit.

I'm once again extrapolating here, without having read Stockett's book, but I would guess that it's a remarkably faithful adaptation. While it's certainly cinematic, and a likely favourite in the upcoming awards season, it takes its sweet time, and seems to find something for every character to do. But weirdly, it all seems to happen consecutively, rather than simultaneously. For instance, Skeeter's relationship issues are completely ancillary, but we divert from the more interesting stuff, every now and then. It's not often that you see a token white male character in a movie, and arguably, this one could have been better off without it.

The Help isn't a film about the civil rights movement, but a film that is informed by the period in which it is set. Viola Davis gives a stunning performance, matched tooth and claw by a ferociously horrid turn by Bryce Dallas Howard. This is not a film in which Emma Stone brings about racial equality, but one in which she compassionately lobbies for people to treat their slaves with a bit more respect. Rosa Parks, she ain't. And quite right too. The really hard edges have largely been filed off, but just because it's not miserable, doesn't mean it takes injustice any less seriously. It's uplifting stuff, but with a strong moral and historical compass.

The Help is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Help, why not share your comments below? Did anyone else realise that was Jessica Chastain while they were watching? Wowzers.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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