IT usually makes me nervous when a director gets their sticky mitts on one of my favourite books.
But praise be that in the hands of Tate Taylor, Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, The Help, escapes a fate worse than cinematic massacre.
In fact, I’ll even go as far as to say that at two hours and 20 minutes, the film stays about as true to the book as attention spans will allow, giving its weighty issues the screen time and all-star acting it deserves.
At the heart of the tale is Aibileen, played by Viola Davis with the sort of perfection that makes your throat ache from choking back tears for two hours straight.
She’s a black maid who’s made a career out of raising white babies for the rich, middle class ladies of a 1960s southern town, and who loves them more than their mothers do but must stand by as they grow up to be as narrow-minded as their parents.
Unexpectedly, her plight – and that of dozens of her friends – is given a voice by would-be journalist Skeeter (Stone) who far from conforming to the married fate expected of her, decides to write an expose on how the “help” were treated at a time when civil rights was but a twinkle in Martin Luther King’s eye.
It’s a heart-warming drama which ticks all of the boxes for helping the downtrodden and mistreated, though as some critics have rightly pointed out, the maids do gaze upon Skeeter as their saviour – undercutting the very idea that this is about giving strength to the oppressed and not a superior white woman allowing them a shot at equality.
But this film deserves an awful lot of credit. Stone gives a solid performance in what is arguably one of her more challenging roles to date, despite a couple of blips where we are reminded of the actress’ naturally “kooky” character.
Bryce Dallas Howard gives a wonderfully bitter performance as the evil conductor of the town’s racism and her chemistry with Octavia Spencer, who plays the sassy “mammy” figure given a second chance by equally outcast socialite, Celia (Jessica Chastain), is wonderful to watch.
Overall the film is tastefully made with beautiful attention to period detail and star quality support slots from Chastain and Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother. If The Help doesn’t pick up a string of awards I’ll consider it a crime.