Oscar Worthy Performances Elevate ‘The Help’ To Triumphant Screen Adaptation
Hollywood adaptations of novels are hit or miss. So I took in “The Help” Tate Taylor’s big screen version of Kathryn Stockett’s beloved bestseller with equal measures of anticipation and trepidation. I needn’t have worried. If you loved the book, you’re apt to like the movie. And if you haven’t read it, you’ll like the film even more, probably so much so, you’ll run out and grab the book.
I don’t want to over sell the film. It’s a good–but not great– Hollywood treatment of the story of black maids raising white children amid the early ’60′s back drop of the civil rights movement in Jackson, Mississippi. Despite the obvious narrative challenges ( there are three strong voices in the book)Taylor,who was a childhood pal of Stockett’s and is clearly familiar with the terrain, handles the material deftly.
The richly detailed back stories are watered down in the cinematic translation, one or two plot points are changed or abandoned, but the heart and soul of the story remains. The humor and emotional power soar. All thanks to an esteemable ensemble.
Any gaps are filled in by that stellar cast, most notably the Oscar worthy performances by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. They play the maids who agree to tell their stories to recent Ole Miss grad, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, an aspiring young white journalist,(an earnest turn by Emma Stone),determined to write a book of cultural importance, showing racism runs deeper than denial of education and voting rights.
Davis’ Aibileen Clark is the epitome of deferential politeness, ending almost every utterance with a “m’am”. Yet her eyes speak volumes about the pain and anger she harbors. Aibileen battles the bitterness that has crept into her soul since losing her only son to a tragic death. Like so many black maids of the time, she suffers abuse at the hands of white employers yet lavishes genuine love on the 17 white children she has raised.
Davis, whose one poignant scene stealing moment earned her a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for “Doubt” a few years back, is an early favorite for the Best Actress category.
Spencer’s sassy Minny Jackson, Aibileen’s best friend and the best cook in the county, provides not only comic relief but a stark contrast to Ailbileen’s deferential demeanor. Minny summons the moxy and the means to get back at her overbearing employer. If you read the book, you now what’s coming, and Spencer delivers the made- for- the- movies moment with great spunk and relish. Still, Spencer sprinkles in the right notes of pathos to Minny’s sad family secret. While she could easily compete in the Best Actress category, too, I’m hoping she gets a Supporting nod, so both actresses may get their due.
As a film, “The Help” is too black and white. All the wisdom here is generated by the black maids, while the white Southern belles, with the exception of the social pariah Celia Foote ( a powerful, layered performance by Jessica Chastain) are seen as callous and uncaring, little more than entitled stereotypes. Still, Bryce Dallas Howard makes the most of her role as the witchy villain Hilly Holbrook and Sissy Spacek has a marvelous turn as her mother, the dotty, free thinking and drinking Mrs. Walker. Allison Janney, too, infuses Skeeter’s mother Charlotte with shades of southern ardor and discontent that expand what’s written in the script.
Men, who play minor roles in the book, are mere walk-ons in the film. Jackson may be a man’s world, but the household is the woman’s domain, and the men are just there to pay the bills.
Taylor turns out a handsome film, rich in period details: the cars, the clothes, the food. it”s all very “Mad Men” meets “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And while it is, at times, a contrived tear-jerker, the acting is so moving, you’ll likely forgive the manipulation.
No, it’s not as good as the book. And it’s not an epic of historical import. But “The Help” is an emotional, triumphant tour de force. Bring plenty of Kleenex.
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