Monday 2 April 2012

The Help (2011) - Tate Taylor

It's easy to see why The Help won favour with the American Oscar voters.  Of course, racism is an important part of modern American history and any film that tackles such a difficult subject deserves reward.  Yet does The Help offer anything new to the subject?  Not particularly, but it does at least tell an interesting human story.

Set in 1960s Mississippi, Emma Stone plays Skeeter Phelan, a young aspiring author who decides to write a book from the viewpoint of the African-American maids working in the area, aka 'The Help'.  It details the mistreatment of these brave women by their bitchy Stepford Wife employees through a series of personal stories, finally giving them a voice and the courage to stand up for their civil rights - even if that voice comes from the pen of a young white woman.

The trouble is that it's all wrapped up in sugar-coating, only emphasised by the happy ending that neatly ties up any loose ends.  At times the narrative rises to powerful levels, where the drama breaks out of its fluffy cushioning and we truly see the shocking events that did (and still do) occur.  Skeeter's tale of her own maid Constantine is particularly heartbreaking.  Yet much of these moments of abuse are merely alluded to, like we're receiving the sanitised version of events, the truth almost too brutal to take.  The remains of the narrative rarely rises above an episode of Desperate Housewives, events revolving around the affairs of gossiping, two-dimensional women.  The only real threat is that of cheating husbands and unbeknowingly eating shit out of a cake.

The two Oscar nominated (and one winning) performances from Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer certainly stand out.  Spencer's often hilarious Minny is the perfect foil to Davis's weary Aibileen, embuing the film with some outlandish comedy moments.  Well-rounded and bitterly believable, these characters feel like real women, though perhaps that's just in contrast to the robotic, automaton's around them.  Taylor's mise en scene is well shot and Thomas Newman's score provides poignancy in the deeply emotional scenes.

The Help is a film that yo-yos between soap opera and real drama.  Just like Skeeter's book, it's undoubtedly a riveting watch - at just under two and a half hours the time flies by.  But equally, her book aims to view issues of racism from a new perspective, something Taylor's film fails to achieve.