By rights, The Help should be a no-brainer movie hit. Adapted from an unputdownable best seller by Kathryn Stockett, it teams a great cast with a fine cinematographer and a competent director & screenwriter who has created from the female perspective a coherent story of the fight against injustice towards black maids by white society ladies in Jackson, Mississippi. It recreates the 60s with care and precision, recalling the attitudes to a tee. The audience should be discarding tissues by the thousand…. and yet…. and yet.
Somehow, strangely, the movie is somewhat less than its component parts. Others have described it as ‘uninvolving’ and ‘lacking in emotional empathy’. So what is it that means the characters, beautifully drawn as they are, fail to hit the spot?
We should begin by noting that all men in the film are two-dimensional cardboard cutouts, though arguably that is deliberate. The film is, after all, an unashamedly female and feminine pic. Could it be that these women conform too closely to stereotypes?
As the society queen bee, for example, Hilly Holbrook is marked out as the stage villain from the start, a racist and bully who paints herself as the model of respectability. All the maids are loyal, deferential, almost whiter than white, one deft piece of revenge pie-baking and another giving in to temptation and suffering the consequences apart, maybe too much so.
Certainly, for a movie about black maids, much of it is told from the point of view of rich white women, which gives the impression of condescension Stockett never intended. Perhaps the film is also just a tad too didactic and sanitised for its own good? Making no secret of where Tate Taylor’s sympathies lie, maybe The Help lacks the moral depth and ambiguity that would have made for a more subtle picture?
Whatever it is, this is a lost opportunity, a movie that should have been a sparkling story of redemption and dignity. It is not quite as good as you think it is going to be, hard though it tries. A shame – the performances, especially by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as the two maids at the centre of the story, are exemplary – in fact they are the shining light at the centre of this tale. One hopes they are not forgotten in the rush for Oscars, which will presumably be led by the (white) would-be writer Skeeter Phelan, as portrayed enthusiastically by Emma Stone.