Hollywood continues its affinity for the way things used to be in the mid-1960s American south with Tate Taylor's The Help (2011); a rather cloying, occasionally moving melodrama set in Jackson, Mississippi at the cusp of the Civil Rights movement. Based on Kathryn Stockett's emotionally charged novel, the film re-examines a tumultuous time of social upheaval and monumental gestalts toward equality. Indeed, these were not the best of times. Tate, who also adapted the screenplay, sticks very close to the novel's first person narrative, centering on Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan (Emma Stone) and her affectionate relationship with two maids who will help reshape her burgeoning social conscience.
At 146 minutes The Help astutely covers a period steeped in demonstrative segregation and daily racism inflicted on blacks in the south as seen through the wide hurt eyes of Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis); a middle-aged mild mannered housemaid who has spent her life rearing generations of white children for upwardly mobile southern families. More recently, Aibileen's will to live has been beaten into submission by the loss of her only son. But she has a good friend in Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), the outspoken maid who has built her reputation as a rather confrontational figure, albeit with phenomenal cooking skills.
In the more cordial and gentile part of town, Eugenia Phelan has returned home after graduation to discover that her beloved childhood maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson) has left her mother, Charlotte's (Allison Janney) employ under mysterious circumstances. Eugenia is drifting, badly. While all her friends have moved on with their lives and careers, she is stagnated by an inability to relate to boys, and, a dead end career, writing helpful hints for homemakers in the local paper.
A spark of an idea occurs to Eugenia when she decides to pump her best friend, Elizabeth Leefolt's (Ahna O'Reilly) maid, Aibileen for housekeeping tips. But Eugenia is increasingly unsettled with the way her contemporaries treat 'the help', particularly stuffy socialite, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) who has recently proposed a bill for separate bathrooms because she believes black people have different diseases than whites. Hilly is a despicable creature, so maniacal in her twisted thinking, that she has even alienated her own mother, Missus Walters (Sissy Spacek) whom she increasingly regards as a simple-minded burden to be disregarded and even 'put away'.
Eugenia plans to write a book that will expose these social injustices. But, fearing the critical backlash that will accompany such an exposé, the black maids are reluctant to talk to her. In the meantime, Minny is fired as Hilly's maid for using her toilet during a violent storm. Hilly's venomous nature ostracizes Minny from the community, forcing her daughter to drop out of school and get a job as a maid to support the family. Minny eventually finds work at the regal country estate of Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), recently wed to the very rich and very handsome Johnny (Mike Vogel), Hilly's former fiancée. Because of her own working class background, Celia can relate to Minny's isolation from the rest of the community. As such, she treats Minny with far greater respect and tenderness.
Minny and Aibileen share their stories with Eugenia who quickly pens them into a loose memoire that she sends to Harper Row editor, Miss Stein (Mary Steenburgen). Believing that the book proposal will only have merit during the Civil Rights Movement that Miss Stein regards as a passing fad, she encourages Eugenia to obtain a dozen or so more contributions before Harper Row will publish it. Unfortunately, the rest of the maids are scared to participate - that is, until two watershed moments make it intolerable for them to remain silent any longer. The first event that stirs them to reconsider is the tragic assassination of Civil Rights activist, Medgar Evers. But the second is even more personal, when Hilly has her current maid, Yule May Davis (Aunjanue Ellis) arrested and brutalized by the police for attempting to pawn one of her rings to pay for her twins' college tuition.
Eugenia is inundated with stories, including one that Minny calls the 'Terrible Awful'. In it, Minny confesses that she baked a chocolate pie - presumably as an apology for Hilly after being fired that included, among its many fine ingredients, her own fecal matter. After Hilly has eaten two slices, Minny informs her of the pie's contents. This discovery makes Hilly physically sick but amuses Missus Walters immensely. For her glee, Hilly commits her mother to an old age home. But the inclusion of the story in Eugenia's book also forces Hilly into a corner. She cannot admit to her contemporaries that the book is about Jackson without divulging that she is the one who has eaten Minny's excrement.
Eugenia also manages to find out what has happened to Constantine. It seems that when Minny came home to see her mother, Charlotte was forced by the ladies auxiliary to fire Constantine in her daughter's presence to save her own face - and this after nearly forty years of devoted service. The insult sends Constantine into exile in Chicago where she died of a broken heart. Enraged by her mother's betrayal of the woman who essentially reared her Eugenia retreats to the relative comfort and kindnesses of Aibileen and Minny. Eugenia's book, 'The Help' is released to generally tepid reviews and limited distribution. But it eventually finds its audience and Eugenia shares her royalties with the maids who helped her write it. She also lands her dream career as an editor for Harper Row. Minny and Aibileen encourage Eugenia to go out and find her life.
In the wake of the book's success Hilly vows revenge for being publicly humiliated. She confronts Aibileen in Elizabeth's presence with the charge that she has stolen several pieces of silverware from her hutch. But Aibileen's resolve has been reborn. She challenges the indictment and calls out Hilly as a 'godless' woman who will never find inner peace unless she can lay to rest her own prejudices. This truthful confrontation exposes Hilly's evilness once and for all. She has no power over Aibileen anymore, and as Aibileen departs Elizabeth's home for the last time her own faith in a tomorrow that is free from Hilly's tyranny ultimately restores her soul.
At its best The Help is a poignant melodrama with expertly crafted performances. But the film stumbles during its first act, occasionally quite clumsily, as we get to know our central protagonists. The black characters - particularly Aibileen and Minny - are beautifully drawn against type, very earthy and natural. Far more problematic are the white counterparts, particularly Hilly who comes across as the proverbial Caucasian stick figure with no soul. Even our heroine, Eugenia, is something of an archetype - the fish out of water/wallflower cliché run amuck until late in the last third when she suddenly acquires a better understanding of the world around her and the place she will soon be called upon to occupy in it as the ‘great white hope’.
The Help’s success hinges on two performances: Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer - the latter winning last year's Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. Both ladies are equal to the task, and each delivers a worthy standout. When either or both of these talented ladies are on the screen The Help crackles with life, heart and sincerity - and there's enough good material written for both actresses to ensure that most of the film plays with an irresistible genuineness. Mark Ricker's production design and Sharen Davis' costumes do a fine job of recreating 60s southern pastiche. But what about Stephen Goldblatt's cinematography - so flat and uninspired that the film looks more like a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV special rather than a major feature release. This latter complaint is by no means limited to Mr. Goldblatt's shortcomings alone.
I mean, has every camera man in Hollywood suddenly forgotten how to light a set for maximum dramatic effect? There's no interplay of light and shadow to heighten the mood of this piece. Daytime photography just looks like a snapshot taken outside any window in America while night time sequences are simply shot in the dark. Personal opinion of course, but I am tired of movies that don't look like movies anymore, but rather like glorified TV shows projected onto a bigger than life screen. But I digress. The Help comes recommended primarily for its solid direction by Taylor that moves the action swiftly and for its aforementioned acting prowess by the two major players. In a nutshell, this is a deftly handled piece of cinema that, again, is somewhat submarined by its less than enthusiastic visuals. Then again, as conceived on a rather modest $25 million dollar budget, how much style can we expect?
Touchstone Home Entertainment's Blu-ray release is welcome indeed. We get a Blu-ray and DVD combo pack, but for the purposes of this review only the Blu-ray has been reviewed. Everything's as it should be in 1080p. Colors are robust and vibrant. Contrast levels are bang on and fine detail sparkles throughout. No surprises or compromises to extol or complain about. The audio is DTS 5.1, with good spatial separation. Dialogue sounds natural and Thomas Newman's score is given its due. Extras include several deleted scenes, a brief featurette on the making of the film, a tribute to the real maids of Mississippi and Mary J. Blige's 'The living Proof' music video.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)