Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Help

I began to read The Help in a bookshop the other day and put it on my list of books to catch up on at some point.  In the meantime my wife and I went to the film version last night; that's probably spoilt some of the surprises of the book, but no doubt still leaves the pleasures of the writing for the future.

The movie deals with the bunch of incidents and stories effectively, as well as with the wide range of characters.  There are strong performances from the black members of the cast, and some slightly over-the-top ones from the white actresses (actresses being the operative word: men hardly make any impact in this movie).  This is, I suspect, intentional: one of the many contrasts in the movie.

The story, as probably everyone knows by now, is about the black women who act as maids, housekeepers, grocery shoppers, cooks, cleaners and general dogsbodies to the white community in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 60s - at a time just on the cusp of the huge changes that would come between blacks and whites in the US.  Emma Stone plays a white woman who's been brought up by the family's black maid - a very common approach to child-rearing, apparently: one of the other major characters, Aibileen (the narrator in the book and played here by Viola Davis) is in the process of doing the same thing for her white family during most of the movie.   This curious bit of interracial leniency in these families is in stark contrast to the insistence by most of them that the black maids don't use the same toilets, or plates, or sit at the same tables - nor do a host of other things while working in the house.  (Toilets play quite a big part in this movie, incidentally.)

Stone's character Skeeter is an aspiring and compassionate would-be journalist, and latches onto the real stories of the black maids, and how they feel about the whole process of being degraded by the whites.   The revelations are both grim and hilarious, and Stone  publishes a book on the topic - it's also called The Help.   (The real author of The Help, Kathryn Stockett, struggled to get her book published: she received some sixty rejections in all before it took off.)

As a movie, The Help is consistently entertaining, sometimes troubling (we know that many of these issues have been overcome, but no doubt there are also many lingering ones), beautifully filmed, with a cast of excellent actresses.  (As I said, the men barely get a look in - only Skeeter's boyfriend has much screentime, and even he proves to be much less than she demands of him).  That wonderful actress Alison Janney makes frequent appearances as Skeeter's mother - wearing an appalling set of wigs.  I don't know whether this has something to do with the fact that she is supposed to have some form of cancer, but only once does Janney look anything like her gorgeous self: mostly she has dreadful black things stuck on her head.   Viola Davis also appears to be wearing a wig, and it seems a little less than suitable as well.   Both actresses overcome this minor issue with aplomb.   Bryce Dallas Howard plays the nastier of the white women with extreme venom, and may or may not be redeemed in the end.   Sissy Spacek appears as her alcoholic mother, but doesn't have quite enough of a role to really get to grips with. Cicely Tyson plays the old maid who brought up Skeeter; she isn't in the movie much, but brings great depth of emotion to her two big scenes.  However, like most of the black actresses she is difficult to hear at times.  I don't know whether it was the particular screening we saw of this movie, but the black women seemed to be mumbling their lines in some scenes in such a way that it was hard to understand them; as well, there was a lack of sharpness to the focus of many scenes.  Perhaps both of these were faults of the cinema rather than the moviemaking.   And it wasn't just my ears: my wife had the same trouble understanding some of the lines as well.

This is an excellent ensemble piece, and well worth viewing.   I'll still read the book, I think!

PS I should have mentioned Octavia Spencer, who as Minny, has the other major black role, and steals several scenes.   She is superb.   And also that the movie has a satisfactory ending which suddenly unwinds in the last scene.  Which is probably appropriate. 

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