Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Help (2011, Tate Taylor)

Hollywood seems ready to talk about unfortunate parts of its history, though America doesn't have sole blame for past injustices that still haunt and carry on today it does have the most powerful form of artistic communication, in cinema. A communicative tool so far unused in telling accurate stories of a shameful past, remaining brushed under the carpet in a bid to keep the "land of the free" pristine and upstanding. Along with Tarantino's slavery western and Steve McQueen's Twelve Years A Slave due next year, The Help is front of line in a new flurry of films tackling difficult and neglected subject matter for the first time in such a commercial field.

Adapted from Kathryn Stockett's novel of the same name, The Help follows 23 year old journalist Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) as she embarks on a risky perhaps life threatening project. Skeeter operates as the film's moral compass, as she sees awful treatment of 'coloured help' in well-to-do white households she feels uneasy and alienated, as do we. She wants to write a book from the view point of the help, to give them a voice and to reveal the harsh realities of their daily lives. With two at first cautious volunteers played by the scene stealing Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer who won the Oscar for her role as the downtrodden but never downplayed Minny, they write their diary. Day by day charting new stories as well as past examples in a bid to reveal truth to the masses while the civil rights movements grow.

The treatment of these black women working for less than minimum wage and doing more for white families than either parent ever would or could is heartbreaking. Writer/director Tate Taylor channels Stockett's novel in presenting a shocking and contradictory world of cruelty and ignorance; these woman who are treated without the faintest ounce of respect are raising the American upper classes, helping them to function but then discarded and looked upon in disgust as if not worthy of being near their children. They are a sad necessity to these people yet viewed as ignoble, fired for the most unjust and demeaning reasons.

Despite being rather heavy handed in its melodrama The Help still sails perfectly fine. It certainly does lead us towards desired emotions but is only distracting as we don't need help feeling for these characters, a cast performing as good as this don't need Thomas Newman's sweeping sentimental piano as a crutch. Newman's music serves a purpose as always but intrudes too often which grows increasingly annoying as a scoreless edit of the film would still deliver the tearjerking moments so desperately wanted. The acting here is mainly stellar, in some rather caricature like villainy from Bryce Dallas Howard amongst others it never falls too dangerously towards a demonic representation of Desperate Housewives. That said, this approach to some characters is well performed on that level providing an element clearly wanted by the filmmakers, fun! Never scared of its subject matter The Help is never scared at having some fun too, mostly at the comeuppance of the more racist players such as Dallas Howard's 'Godless' Hilly.

Jessica Chastain (The Tree Of Life) is adorable and shockingly sexy as the ditzy Celia Foote, a member of the community who can relate to being outcast and mistreated. Her growing relationship with Minny is touching and sweet as she learns how to run a house without her husband knowing of her hiring help. Celia's innocence and fondness of Minny is refreshing after the amount of disrespect shown throughout, treating her with fondness, looking up to her almost like a mother. Emma Stone is as brilliant as we've come to expect from this young talent and Skeeter is a commanding heroine in a film holding many, she's a woman ahead of her time countering her oppressive bigoted culture at every turn. Viola Davis steals the show, despite Octavia Spencer picking up her much deserved Oscar, Davis holds attention and broods an emotional intensity inside, keeping it hidden under layers of maternal calm. She has suffered much in her life and a past trauma eats away at her; unlike the wives she works for she doesn't lash out at others as a response to her pain or hollowness, not that she would if able to but we know her to be a gracious loving woman. Davis' portrayal makes us hurt when she hurts every step of the way, effecting us without forcing us like the film so often tries.

The Help is a powerful watch made perfectly accessible thanks to slight cartoon characterisations and light relief in well timed humour. It often tries hard dragging us to its water but with a story as important and touching as this you wish it had the confidence to know how much we want to drink.