Writer-director Taylor is friends with author Kathryn Stockett, whose best-selling novel this movie is based upon. She apparently helped him secure the gig. Good for him. He's made a smart job of it indeed. Naysayers will doubtless say that it's a patronising treatise about the black experience for white liberal audiences. So what? It works. Taylor has crafted a nuanced drama on a large canvas and has fashioned a most watchable and compelling affair in the process. Kudos to him and all involved. The Help is quite simply superb.
Men hardly get a look-in with this tale of life in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early '60s before the civil rights movement took hold. It's the women who take centre stage and the cast Taylor has assembled are formidable in the extreme. Not least Davis's beautifully rendered portrayal of housemaid Aibileen, a loyal and downtrodden African American maid working for thoughtless young mother Elizabeth (O'Reilly), an easily influenced woman whose best friends with prime bitch Hilly (Howard, at last in a role of substance that she really can get her teeth into). Hilly insists on separate bathrooms for the black help and is most despicable in her scheming ways. She falls out with her bullish domestic Minny (Spencer) and is horribly dismissive of new white trash resident Celia (Chastain).
Thank goodness Skeeter (Stone) is around to offer a sympathetic ear to the hired help. This tenacious young woman has ambitions to be a journalist and is commissioned to write a piece about the real experiences of the maids in her area. Aibileen in intially too scared to voice her complaints but after seeing one injustice too many decides to anonymously aid the youthful writer in her endeavours. Stubborn Minny then decides to recount stories of her life too and soon all their co-workers are arriving to recount their tales of woe against their white opressors to the budding author, giving her enough material for a book. The hardships they face, and the subtle revenge they exact – you''ll think twice about ordering chocolate pie again – are done with with high style and skill, avoiding melodramatics and never tugging too manipulatively at the heartstrings.
This is not a down and dirty movie. There's no squalor or sadism. It's presented very tastefully and the production design is done with impressive care. The tale unfolds under glorious sunshine and the fashions are immaculate. What gives the narrative its grit are the first rate performances. Davis is the bullwark everyone plays off and is utterly convincing as the experienced maid who finally takes a stand. Howard is terrific as the mean spirited Hilly, giving her all as the stuck up racist with personal vendettas. Their stand off at the end is rivetting. Stone and Chastain are equally fine – the former registering plausible independence amid the backwards attitudes of her peers, while the latter is very endearing as the none too bright interloper out of her depth. If this film had been made 15 to 20 years ago, then Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett would've been perfect for these roles. And one mustn't forget Spencer. As overweight Minny she creates a truly memorable character in her forthright fight against the wrongs that beset her.
The Help has been a big hit in the US and deservedly so. The pace never flags and it's devoid of preachiness and sanctimoniousness. Exquisitely rendered, this is a movie to savour. It's moving, absorbing and satisfying – one of the best films of the year in fact.