Film review | The Help – The maids have their say in Civil Rights tale with heart, soul and sass

THE HELP - Aibileen (Viola Davis) attends to Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her friends

Set in the US Deep South at the dawn of the Civil Rights era, The Help is a rousing Hollywood melodrama that takes a highly sensitive, emotionally charged subject – the relationship between black maids and their white employers – and turns it into an uplifting, crowd-pleasing fable.

Returning home to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963, recent college graduate Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) feels ill at ease with her old classmates, who’ve turned into conformist wives and mothers in her absence. Uncomfortable with the racial bigotry she witnesses, and ambitious to become a writer, she resolves to write a book that will allow the town’s black maids to give voice to their experiences.

Based on the 2009 bestseller by Kathryn Stockett, The Help paints its characters, black and white alike, with a very broad bush, but the superb ensemble cast invest their parts with soul and sass, while writer-director Tate Taylor (a childhood friend of the author) adroitly pushes the audience’s buttons to elicit laughter and tears.

The storytelling isn’t particularly subtle, but the performances provide more shades than you might expect. Take Jessica Chastain’s role as white-trash social outcast Celia; her jittery blonde bombshell could easily have been a one-note caricature but she gives Celia pathos and sincerity. Even the film’s most hateful, viciously racist character, Bryce Dallas Howard’s spiteful socialite Hilly, is allowed a vulnerable humanity.

But it’s Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as stoic, long-suffering Aibileen and feisty, outspoken Minny who give the story its heart. And it’s Minny who provides the movie’s funniest moments, especially when she gets her own back on former employer Hilly with an audacious reprisal that proves that revenge is indeed a dish best served cold.

On general release from Friday 26th October 2011.

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