We here at the Period Drama website tend to consider periods dramas (or PDs as we prefer to say) as anything dating from WWII and earlier. This week, I have decided to talk about something a tad more contemporary and something that was only released in Oz just last week. This week, I’ll be looking at the adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel “The Help”.
Set in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960’s, ‘The Help’ tells the story of college graduate and aspiring journalist, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, as she writes a book about the lives and conditions experienced by African American maids, known simply as “the help”. The maids tell of lives spent raising white children for less than minimum wage, only to have those children become their bosses. They share stories of racism, discrimination and cruelty, all the while being terrified of the repercussions of speaking out. The film also follows the lives of two of these maids, best friends Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson. Both Aibileen and Minny work for friends of Skeeter, whose attitudes towards their maids differ greatly from Skeeter’s. One such friend is Hilly Holbrook, whose “Home Help Sanitation Initiative”, a proposed bill to enforce a separate toilet for the coloured help to prevent the spread of disease, drives a wedge between the two women.
This mostly female driven cast is wonderful. Up-and-coming “it” girl, Emma Stone (Easy A), does a great job as the plain talking Skeeter, and Octavia Spencer (Ugly Betty) is terrific as the highly amusing and sass-mouthing Minny. However, I felt that it was Viola Davis (Doubt) as the compassionate Aibileen who was the star of the show. Bryce Dallas Howard (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), daughter of director Ron Howard, is delightfully detestable as Hilly, and you can’t help but feel satisfied when she begins to come undone. The film also has strong performances by Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life), Allison Janney (The West Wing) and Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter).
For those who are a fan of the book, I think this quite a fair adaptation. The film triggers a whole gamut of emotions. There were times were I almost cried from laughter, and more times where I was moved to tears by the horrors of the maids’ situations. (I’ll admit, I do cry easily.) Unlike some films depicting the civil rights era, “The Help” is not a dark, gritty portrayal of discrimination and injustice, a fact that some critics were quick to pounce on. The film has many moments that are quite light hearted and some, as I have said, that are downright hilarious. On a more superficial note, all rockabilly lovers and Madmen fans will love the fashions, sets and products, as well as the soundtrack.
As much as I enjoyed this film, there were some gaping faults that I found hard to ignore. I couldn’t help but feel that the consequences of Skeeter’s book were glossed over, in favour for a happier ending. In reality, and in the novel, the results for speaking out were more drastic for all involved. Many of the stories of abuse and assault that take place in the novel have been left out, as unfortunately, have some of the stories of compassion, leaving the movie that little bit shallower. My final criticism says more about me than the film, I think. However, I must add that as a non-American, I found the accents surprisingly difficult to follow for the first part of the film, and as a result, I felt that I missed some of the subtleties of those scenes.
Overall, I really enjoyed this film, and I’m sure it will be one to add to the DVD collection. I’m looking forward to watching it again, though I might be tempted to put the subtitles on for the beginning. If “The Help” is still playing at your local theatre, I recommend that you catch it.