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Help, The (AF)


Stars: Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Allison Janney, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Cicely Tyson

Director: Tate Taylor

Whatever else can be said about this handsomely mounted adaptation of “the critically acclaimed No.1 New York Times best-selling debut novel by Kathryn Stockett”, nobody can accuse “The Help” of lacking heart. Indeed, it is so relentlessly and sincerely warm-hearted there are times when cinemagoers may well find themselves in danger from their underwear spontaneously combusting during its deliberately tear-jerking moments.

The well-realised setting is Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960s when segregation still rules (there is a telling shot of a building in Jackson which has a separate entrance for ‘coloreds’). Enter recent college graduate Stone and aspiring writer who gets a job writing a column about cleaning for the local paper. Knowing nothing of the subject she seeks help from her best friend’s black maid Davis, who has raised 17 white children while losing her own child, to write her column. The unlikely couple bond, Davis tells Stone of her and her fellow blacks’ near-bondage-like life as servant of the white community, catalyzing Stone into writing what becomes a notorious exposé of the inherent cruelty and unfairness of segregation and the exploitation of black women in the South…

Despite some strong performances, notably by Janney as Stone’s ill mother, Spacek, an unexpectedly potent portrait of a bitch by Howard and equally effective acting by (it would appear if recent releases are taken into account), the suddenly epidemic Chastain, the finest portrayals come from Davis and Spencer who, playing an outspoken housekeeper who “has a reputation as the best cook in Mississippi” (and proves it in a key scene when she feeds a pie with human faeces as its key ingredient to her appalling racist employer), gives the too often mushy story is much-needed sturdy dramatic spine.

Production values impress (although the attractive vintage cars too often seem a tad too clean) and, in spite of too often unintentionally (I assume) acting and misplaced comedy by some of the white protagonists) seriousness is at the centre of scenarist- director Taylor (a childhood friend of author Stockett) approach. What a pity, then, that his film is at least 30 minutes too long, dragging itself along after the climactic event, publication of Stone’s book, has made its impact.

Alan Frank

USA 2011. UK Distributor: Walt Disney. Colour by deluxe.
146 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 12A.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 0, Swearing 1.

Review date: 24 Oct 2011