The Help, a debut novel by Kathryn Stockett (with a “not bad” five million copies sold to date) was published in February 2009. By the end of that year Chris Columbus’ 1492 pictures (early Harry Potter films – amongst others) had snapped up the film adaptation and here we have it. A typical mainstream Hollywood effort, worthy and far from awful, but too broad stroke to really sink any vivid dramatic hooks. For style and tone think more Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner than Mississippi Burning.
We are plunged into a world of southern privilege in ’60s Jackson, Mississippi. All our social elites and upwardly mobile white middle class have hired help. This is the preserve of black maids and their starched blue uniforms, fastidious housekeeping, divine cooking skills and child-rearing parental substitutes. It’s this guardianship by proxy that informs Skeeter Phelan’s (Emma Stone) more liberal sensibility. She’s precocious, independent and wants to be a writer. She was also practically raised by her own family’s elderly maid Constantine.
Gradually, her inherited world of husband-finding, separate in-house help restrooms and knowing your place is revealed before her as rather unacceptable. Needing tips for her own banal starter homemaker column in the local paper becomes a route into the world of The Help. She asks a friend Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard – excellent) if she can interview her maid Aibileen (Viola Davis – totally engaging) for domestic tips and before long they’re knee deep in the experience of discrimination and race politics.
Performances are solid all round. Stone as Skeeter is tidy and unshowy. Bryce Dallas Howard is perfectly cast as the clinical, shallow, “best friend” Hilly Holbrook and Viola Davis is steadfast as Aibileen, the story’s fulcrum. There are also neat turns from Alison Janney as Skeeter’s mother and Octavia Jackson as Minny, an outspoken maid, and best friends with Viola.
It’s a story of intricacies and polite slights, executed with classic poise. But we never really scratch more than the surface. We know Skeeter is motivated by her own maid’s abrupt, unresolved dismissal but that eventual denouement, the emotional anchor on which the protagonist’s story hangs, seems surplus to requirements by the film’s end. We’ve moved on before she has, we’ve already seen the real story, the heart of it. And there’s enough of it to do just fine.