Adapted from Kathryn Stockett's first book of the same name (itself the subject of a nasty court case over character likeness - the lawsuit was eventually thrown out) and Directed by Tate Taylor in 2011 - "The Help" has a virtual flood of truly blistering performances from black and white actresses at the top of their game - women given meaty material they want to do justice to. It's resulted in global box office success and a whopping 53 nominations - followed by as many wins (BAFTA and OSCAR included).
While Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Aunjanue Ellis have rightly been praised for their layered portrayals - I was blown away by the most difficult role of all - that of the odious Hilly Holbrook played by Bryce Dallas Howard. All nail-manicured, freckled-faced and shocked at any suggestion of impropriety - Howard is awesome as a truly hateful white woman with meanness literally hardwired into her DNA. Hilly Holbrook lords it over her cackling local ladies with the fist of a dictator - she sits in her car and spitefully takes pleasure as she watches a black maid who crossed her be arrested by white cops - in the bathroom she marks the individual toilet sheets with a pen to see if her black maid crosses that sanitation line. You literally despise this vacuous witch with every molecule of your being and would gladly whack her across her perfectly combed-back hairdo with a large still-hot skillet. Jessica Chastain too as the blonde and ample social outcast Celia Foote who is perceived as a husband robber but is just lost - another belter of a performance. Lesley Jordan as the less-than-subtle newspaper editor, Sissy Spacek as the mentally ailing mum, Mary Steenburgen as a New York book editor - so many class acts.
The story goes like this - a headstrong 22-year Southern gal called Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan decides to step up from her bottom-of-the-ladder job on a local newspaper as a columnist on 'cleaning tips' and become a real writer (anything to avoid her mother's constant scheming towards marriage). Her subject matter is going to be the black maids who raised the white children of Alabama and their side of the story. The author will be 'Anonymous' and the book will be entitled "The Help". But of course because of fear and intimidation it doesn't prove easy to document and the journey tests Skeeter's loyalties and personal courage to the maximum too (spot-on casting in the lovely and hugely talented Emma Stone). It proves even more traumatic to her 'one-of-the-gals' mother Charlotte (a stupendous turn from Allison Janney) who makes a staggeringly crass mistake on the back of white peer pressure.
But to get started - Skeeter needs a cohort. So when a middle-aged maid she knows gets fired - Skeeter gets her first interviewee. Giving a deeply touching and humane performance, Viola Davis plays Aibileen Clark. Aibileen is 53, works 8 am to 4pm six days a week as a cook, cleaner, maid and full-time nanny (she's mothered 17 children in her life) - and all for peanuts money. And like her mother and grandmother before here - she is virtually a house slave to whatever white family will employ her. This time it's Raleigh and Elizabeth Leefolt and their 3-year daughter Mae Mobley. Aibileen has also lost her grown-up son Treelore to haphazard white working practices and now her job over a trumped-up 'theft of silver' charge. Aibileen may be reluctant at first - but when she sees the sincerity of Skeeter - and feels the need to tell the truth - the stories and details of home-by-home racism come pouring out. But Aibileen loves children - and even when useless mom Elizabeth callously fires her - Aibileen grabs the vulnerable and hurting child Mae Mobley - and in tears - reiterates her mantra of life positivity to her (its dialogue titles this review).
Aibileen's best friend is Minny Jackson - an ace cook and rotund force of nature (despite her husband's occasional beatings). After a hilarious incident involving pie and a non-nutritional substance contained within it (a really great joke that is milked for a good twenty minutes) - she too becomes involved (an unbelievably good Octavia Spencer).
Skeeter's nanny is the elderly and wise Constantine (beautifully played by veteran actress Cicely Tyson) - a source of love, encouragement and constancy in Skeeter's life. Skeeter has so many warm memories of her. Constantine pleating her hair on the porch as a child, Constantine comforting her as young teenager on prom night when the local boys cruelly label her as 'ugly'. But Skeeter can't find out why Constantine suddenly left after 29 years of loyal service. What her mum is hiding is later played out to chilling effect. Allison Janney's character Charlotte is verbally browbeaten into firing Constantine by some cold-blooded Daughter Of The South for some menial infringement. And as Charlotte closes the screen-door on a woman who has given her family a lifetime of love - her trembling hurt is raw like an open wound. It's absolutely heartbreaking. It can't have been an easy scene for even the experienced Janney to do. Her character's later redemption of sorts is convincing and moving.
Getting back to the darker side - there are scenes that shock - make you feel deeply uncomfortable. Black people stream up the concrete steps at the side of the cinema marked `colored entrance' - rich beauty-parlour white mothers talk about diseases being passed from negroes to their white children through toilets in the presence of their maids (they actually try to pass a bill to build separate latrines in every home) and worst of all - the chilling reading out of the "Mississippi" Law Book which will have you wincing in your seat in disbelief. There's the word 'nigra' used as a weapon - the hypocrisy of raising 'benefit' money for children in Africa - the husband who quickly bails from the dinner table as his black maid asks for a loan to put both of her sons through college…
Filmed on location in Greenwood, Mississippi - the homes and interiors are all real - and Stephen Goldblatt's incredible cinematography of the local scenery gives all of its 146 minutes a deeply rich hue. Better still - it's defaulted to 1.85:1 aspect ratio - so the picture fills your entire screen (no bars top or bottom). It means that the BLU RAY image is full-on beautiful all of the time. Add to this a gorgeous and emotive score by THOMAS NEWMAN ("The Shawshank Redemption", "Green Mile", "The Road To Perdition" etc) and the whole thing feels special the moment it opens. The only downer for me came at the film's end in the form of the ubiquitous saccharine ballad - the cheesy and formulaic 'Living Proof' by Mary J. Blige. It would have been far better to simply play out to Newman's affecting music - and classier too.
EXTRAS: even though it's only 24 minutes long - the 'Making Of' is genuinely informative and even moving in places. The Author Kathryn Stockett and Director Tate Taylor are from Jackson, Mississippi and have known each other since childhood. More importantly they both came from broken homes and had black maids whom they loved and admired. It was a story they felt had to be told. Combining this with the magic touch of Steven Spielberg (one of the Executive Producers) - and you begin to understand why and how the lovely tone of the film was achieved and maintained - the right people were let do the job and not some Hollywood name. At just under 12 minutes duration - the 'In Their Own Words...' extra where Tate Taylor and Octavia Spencer talk to real 'Maids of Mississippi' is too short - but what there is of it - is wonderfully insightful and uplifting.
To sum up - touching, funny, horrifying and ultimately moving - "The Help" blew my family and myself away.
Well done to Kathryn Stockett, Tate Taylor, DreamWorks and all the good souls who fought to see it made.
BLU RAY Specifications:
PICTURE: 1080p High Def, 1.85:1 Aspect Ratio
AUDIO: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; French, Spanish and Russian Dolby Digital 5.1
SUBTITLES: English SDH, French, Spanish, Russian, and Ukrainian
1. The Making Of The Help: From Friendship To Film (24 minutes)
2. In Their Own Words: A Tribute To The Maids Of Mississippi (12 minutes)
3. Deleted Scenes With Introductions by Director Tate Taylor (3 scenes)
4. "The Living Proof" Video (by Mary J. Blige)