Thursday, January 19, 2012

THE HELP - A Delightful Ensemble Show

THE HELP (US civil rights drama)
Cast: Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain, Mike Vogel, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Jessica Chastain and Chris Lowell
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenplay: Tate Taylor (based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett)
Time: 135 mins
Rating: * * * (out of 4)

Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in THE HELP

PREAMBLE: With its subject matter on the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, The Help has limited appeal for viewers in Malaysia. Which is probably why it is not scheduled to be released in Malaysia. However, for Oscar movie watchers and cinema fans, this one boasts a formidable cast and delightful performances.

The Help has already won the Critics' Choice awards for Best Actress (Viola Davis), Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer) and Best Ensemble; a Golden Globe for Spencer (Best Supporting Actress) and a bunch of other awards for Jessica Chastain as well as the whole cast (ensemble). Now that the US has an African-American President, it is interesting to see how different things were just 50 years ago...

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? The film is based on Kathryn Stockett's best-seller in which a white girl (Emma Stone as Skeeter Phelan) fancies herself a writer and convinces a bunch of Mississippi maids to publish stories about their work for the genteel white ladies in Jackson.

The maids include Aibileen (Davis) who has devoted her life to taking care of white babies, and Minny Jackson (Spencer), a good cook who isn't afraid to hit out at those who injured her self-respect. The employers include Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, right), two women from opposite ends of the social scale.

HITS & MISSES: "What's it feel like raising a white child when your own child is at home being raised by someone else?" This question, asked by Skeeter at the opening of the film, is a universal paradox and it applies to married maids everywhere. For those in Mississippi in the Sixties, it is particularly poignant when we see how badly they are being treated by their bosses - despite the attempts by the Federal Government to end racial discrimination.

RECALLING THEIR STORIES: Spencer, Davis and Stone

Director Tate Taylor, who grew up in Jackson, demonstrates a keen sense for the dialect and mannerisms of the folks of his hometown. The women, especially, consider themselves a class above the others and they thrive on gossips and scandals. One of the movie's most talked about scandal is the embarrassing 'payback' that Minny inflicts on Hilly.

Clocking more than 135 minutes, The Help may seem rather long-drawn but we are compensated for it by sterling performances of even the 'extras' like Allison Janney (of TV's West Wing) as Skeeter's social-climbing mom, and Sissy Spacek as Hilly's mother who is a victim of Alzheimer's. They have limited time on-screen but their lines are unforgettable. And oh yes, there's a subplot about attempts to get a beau (Chris Lowell) for Skeeter but this gets side-tracked by the main events.

THE LOWDOWN: A delightful ensemble performance.

NB: The Help is not yet shown in Malaysia. This review is for Oscar Watchers.


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