Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Help (2011)

You'd think by now that I wouldn't decide in advance whether a film is really worth seeing, especially when I normally end up viewing all of them -- the good and the dross -- anyhow.  It is true that I was in no hurry to view the above movie, despite the generally good notices it received. I decided -- unfairly as it happens -- that it would be too worthy and preachy for words.  I also thought that having a virtually all female cast (the male roles are minor at best) that it would have only chick-flick appeal.  Well, folks, I was wrong on both counts. This is a largely marvellous, intelligent, and engrossing film.

Set in Mississippi in 1963 when the civil rights movement was beginning to gather steam, especially after the murder of Medgar Evans, the cast is mainly made up of the rich, spoiled, vapid, and bigoted women of the town and their downtrodden black maids, and what a cast!  While the entire ensemble deserves credit, among the stand-out 'white' performances are: Bryce Dallas Howard as the ringleader rich bitch, crusading for separate toilets in each house for the maids to use to avoid contaminating the family with all their well-known diseases (!); Jessica Chastain (Oscar-nominated) as the white-trash gal who has dared to wed one of the local good-old-boys that Howard once fancied; Sissy Spacek as Howard's outspoken and slightly senile mother whom she dumps in a nursing home; Emma Stone, proving her non-rom-com skills as the local bachelorette who wants to tell the maids' true story, with her mother, Allison Janney, harping at her full-time to get a boyfriend and flying the flag for the traditional values.  The black cast is led by a feisty Viola Davis (also nominated) as the first to begin to tell her tale to Stone, Octavia Spencer (a deservedly-memorable Oscar winner) as the force of nature falsely fired and accused by Howard when she stands up to her and finally hired by outcast Chastain, and a small but memorable part for veteran actress Cicely Tyson, who tells us more with a single heart-broken glance then could be conveyed in a hundred words.  In fact all of the female casting was nothing short of first rate, down to the smallest part.

The director and screenplay writer Tate Taylor has little in his background as a minor actor and would-be director (only one previous little-seen big screen outing) to suggest that he could put together so skilful a film.   It turns out that he was a childhood friend of the original novel's author, Kathryn Stockett, which may explain why he was chosen to give form to her story.  At any rate, he has done so masterfully.  While one might carp that the basic premise is slightly simplistic, given the advances that blacks have made over the last fifty years, it is undeniably beautifully done with believable drama and a strong streak of humour.  Witness the recurring theme of Spencer and her fabled chocolate pie! Davis who partially narrates the action drives home the point of how a caring woman can raise even the homeliest child of an uncaring mother to believe in herself ("you is kind, you is smart, you is important") yet be mystified how the same loving children can morph into intolerant adults. Stone may be the catalyst that ultimately shakes up the community, with even her mother finally won over and admitting that "courage sometimes skips a generation", but one is aware that her primary motivation is to prove herself to publisher Mary Steenburgen in New York and to swan off to a career in the Big Apple. Meanwhile,the black 'help' who have given her this opportunity by reluctantly confiding their stories have little in the way of new opportunities and possibly only reciprocal hostility to anticipate in the short term.

Yes, I was impressed.  The film was nominated for a best picture Oscar, which it did not win, but it certainly deserved to be considered among the best of its year.  
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