Thursday, January 19, 2012

THE HELP (2011)

Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling book becomes a highly anticipated feature film which falters in its feel-good approach to a troubled period in history.  I have not read the novel, but I have reasonable assurance from one who has that writer/director Tate Taylor’s adaptation is a faithful one.  In pre-civil rights Mississippi recent college graduate Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) returns to Jackson to pursue a career as a writer.  Her newfound political awareness leads to friction with her peers, particularly Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a proponent of segregation who fires her maid Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) for using the family commode.  Minny plots her revenge in part by going to work for Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a housewife shut out of Hilly’s social gatherings.  While working at the local newspaper Skeeter pitches to publisher Elain Stein (Mary Steenburgen) her idea for a book written from the perspective of the black women who care for well-to-do families in the South.  Persuading the help (as these women are called) to grant interviews becomes Skeeter’s biggest challenge.  With reluctance Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) agrees, to the initial consternation, and eventual cooperation, of her fellow domestics.  Davis gives a subtle and nuanced performance, but her character may as well wear a halo.  Chastain charms as the guileless Celia, and her chemistry with Spencer’s brassy Minny provides what spark the film has.  Yet neither overcomes the simplistic writing.  Stone is strangely subdued, while Howard gamely attacks her one-note character with gusto.  The early 1960s were a volatile time filled with societal upheaval.  Yet Taylor’s film feels too tidy for its time.  Although the violent deaths of Medgar Evers (an outspoken black civil rights activist) and John F. Kennedy get their mention, the events’ societal shock waves get relegated to the periphery.  Taylor’s film (and, I suspect, Stockett’s novel) are eager for the audience to congratulate itself on how far race relations have come (and they have).  But to have that self-satisfaction permeate a film set predominately in 1963 Mississippi strikes a frustratingly false note.

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