There is a tendency for the film versions of popular and successful books to be disappointing. The Harry Potter series, The Time Traveller’s Wife and One Day all come to mind. I was therefore slightly sceptical before going to see The Help, the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s number one bestseller. After all, how was a book that deals so sensitively with the lives and emotions of both black and white women in 1960s Mississippi going to translate effectively onto the screen? The trailers didn’t fill me with much hope: chick flick-esque music and a series of shots that showed little of the book’s intelligence. So it’s fair to say that I sat down in the cinema with a certain amount of trepidation.
But, to my surprise and relief, The Help had nothing of the schmaltzy Hollywood vibe that had been advertised. Most of this was due to impeccable casting: Emma Stone as Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, the idealistic journalist who decides to write a book about the stories of the African American maids; Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark, a maid who has raised the children of rich white families all her life, and is the first to help Skeeter with her book; and Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson, Aibileen’s best friend and also a maid, complete with a dynamite temper and a wit so quick it leaves you reeling. Indeed, one of the main praises of this film has been its use of little-known actresses to play some of the main characters. Spencer’s eyes are the most expressive I have ever seen, and the inner turmoil she experiences in the book when confronted with an employer who has no concept of racial divides are portrayed beautifully in the film. Viola Davis’s Aibileen is the calm to Minny Jackson’s storm, and Davis’s interpretation of her character’s grief, loyalty, integrity and bravery makes for a magnificent performance.
Also worthy of mention are Bryce Dallas-Howard and Jessica Chastain, the former playing Hilly Holbrook (the film’s ‘villain’ with extreme racial prejudices and ignorance) and the latter playing Celia Foote (Minny’s boozy and breasty employer who is the only character apart from Skeeter to treat the maids as anything other than lower beings). Dallas-Howard plays her detestable character to perfection, right down to the smug smile that is never far away from her lips, and Chastain is endearing as a 1960s Barbie from the wrong side of the tracks.
The Help is not all serious racial tension: there are some brilliantly comedic moments that lighten what could otherwise turn into a rather sombre film. The scene where Minny reveals the secret ingredient to the pie that her former employer just ate (I won’t give it away) is one that had the whole audience in fits of laughter, especially as it was a reference point for the remainder of the film. Then there are the moments between Skeeter and her mother that any daughter can relate to: hiding in a cupboard to make a secret phone call, having your mother force you into something pretty to wear for a ‘suitable’ young man…
Speaking of men, how refreshing to watch a film where the men play almost no role at all. There is a small love interest for Skeeter, but apart from that The Help is about women and women only. Even the men in the film seem to realise this: when one maid begins to ask her employer about a loan, the husband scarpers in double-quick time. This is a story that focuses on the 1960s woman’s world of the home and the family, and everything that comes under that label.
So, did the film live up to the book? In my opinion, an unequivocal yes. It did not make light of the poor treatment of the maids, nor did it shy away from showing some of the more racist behaviour of the employers. This is not a happy-ever-after film, as not all of the story lines turn out the way you hope they might. But it does leave you with the sense that some people got their just desserts, either literally or metaphorically.
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