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Friday 17 November 2017

Review: The Help * * *

(12A, general release)

Viola Davis is wonderful as the wounded by dignified Aibileen
Viola Davis is wonderful as the wounded by dignified Aibileen

Paul Whitington

Written and directed by Tate Taylor, The Help is adapted from Kathryn Stockett's bestselling 2009 novel of the same name, which raised some hackles in black America.

Ostensibly a book about the evils of southern racism in the 60s, Stockett's novel was criticised for making its black characters speak in a hokey dialect that recalled the worst excesses of Mark Twain.

In a sense, Taylor's film adaptation is faithful to its source, because there's something faintly patronising about its approach to the problems of black maids in the old South.

The Help, however, is undeniably entertaining, and features an exceedingly fine central performance from Viola Davis. She is Aibileen Clark, a middle-aged black maid who has spent her life raising white children in small-town Mississippi.

Aibileen works for Elizabeth Leefoit (Ahna O'Reilly), a young mother who has failed to bond with her daughter and resents the maid's relationship with the little girl. This has been the way in the old South since time immemorial, but it's 1962 and things are about to change.

Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan (Emma Stone) has just finished college and wants to become a writer: she has already begun to tire of her white friends' casual racism, and when she meets Aibileen she decides to write an exposé about the experiences of black maids.

What The Help does well is document the many daily slights black people were expected to endure in a dysfunctional and segregated society.

Davis is wonderful as the wounded but movingly dignified Aibileen, and Octavia Spencer provides wonderful, salty humour as her best friend, Minny. There are fine performances, too, from Jessica Chastain and Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays the villain of the piece.

But there's a real glibness to the way The Help resolves its many plotlines, and a frothy, superficial tone that prevents any real investigation of a very ugly topic.

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