Released almost two months ago in America, The Help quickly became something of a phenomenon. It grossed 7 times as much as it’s initial $25m budget, had praise lavished on it from critics and polled the highest feedback possible from moviegoers. I couldn’t help but be a little suspicious of it before seeing it, knowing Hollywood’s penchant for rewriting history, and certainly some of those fears were not unfounded. But The Help is not a bad film; it’s well made, it’s entertaining, it just lacks any real substance.
An adaptation of a novel by Kathryn Stockett, the film is set in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early 1960s. A news report declares Mississippi to be one of the most racially intolerant places in the country, and from the evidence we’re shown that is certainly true. The only job available for black women is to serve as maids for the white families – cooking their meals, cleaning their houses and raising their children – and for this they are treated with contempt. One of the homeowners, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), goes so far as to make it her mission to ensure that they have to use separate bathrooms, an action that nobody but Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) has a problem with. Skeeter is a young struggling writer, and from her unhappiness with the treatment of the black “help” she decides to write a book from their perspective. She gets off to a slow start due to everyone’s unwillingness to whistleblow, but as events progress she finds more and more people ready to expose the scandals going on.
The film is universally well acted. Emma Stone takes more of a supportive role than audiences might be used to seeing her in, connecting and grounding every aspect of the film without many attention-grabbing moments. Her role is vital in keeping the audience’s focus throughout the long runtime, and she allows other actresses to stand out. In particular, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer shine as two maids who have sacrificed their lives in servitude. The main issue though is the caricatures that all of these actresses have to inhabit. Many of the white homeowners are depicted as so cartoonishly evil that the film simply doesn’t feel remotely connected to reality. There is one brilliant scene late in the film when we find out what happened to Skeeter’s own maid. It works so well because the actions were carried out due to weakness and stupidity and not just because the characters are evil. The ultimate emotion from that scene is one of regret, and it adds layers of resonance to the film. Unfortunately this moment throws the rest of the film into sharp relief, showing how straightforward and flat the majority of it is. And without any depth, the story lacks any meaning.
It’s difficult to hold too much against The Help. I enjoyed seeing it, and the audience in the cinema were one of the most receptive of the year. I have little doubts that it will do well come awards season. But I have serious doubts that anyone will remember it in a few years time.