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DVD Review: ‘The Help’

★★★☆☆

Destined to be broadcast on Sunday afternoons from now until the end of days, Oscar-nominee The Help (2011) is a sweet, involving and exceptionally well-acted civil rights yarn that is, thankfully, more interested in entertaining the audience rather than painting a gritty, realistic picture of the lives of African American maids in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960s.

Emma Stone plays Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, a recent university graduate who returns home to her family’s plantation with dreams of becoming a professional writer. Unmarried, liberal and socially conscience, Skeeter is a rare bird amongst the prissy white middle-class housewives who rely on their maids to clean their houses, prepare their meals and raise their children. Feeling a special affinity for these domestic aides, Skeeter decides to write a book, The Help, yet none of the them are willing to tell her their story due to fear of reprisals. Eventually, she manages to persuade one maid, Abileen Clark (Viola Davis) to be interviewed about her experiences.

Writer and director Tate Taylor should be commended on a job well done with The Help, only his second feature. Having grown up in Jackson (one of his childhood friends was the author Kathryn Stockett, who wrote the source novel of the same name), Taylor clearly draws from his own experiences and his fondness for the characters, even the snobbish harpy Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), is obvious. 

The Help is certainly not a complex film by any stretch of the imagination, and although themes of race, gender and class are all thrown into the pot, it all amounts to a very thin stew. This is Driving Miss Daisy (1989) territory rather than Mississippi Burning (1988) and perhaps Stockett and Taylor’s affection for the town and it’s people is the reason behind the rose-tinted spectacles.

Davis’ role in the film was rewarded with a Best Actress Oscar nomination, yet though there is nothing wrong with her performance, calls of outrage from some quarters claiming that Davis deserved the nod over Meryl Streep are preposterous. In addition, Octavia Spencer’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar could easily have gone to her co-star Jessica Chastain. Chastain’s turn as Celia Foote is unarguably superb, whereas Spencer’s Milly Jackson is solid but unremarkable – her ultimate ‘gift’ to Holbrook a crude and unnecessary plot device.

It’s practically impossible to dislike Taylor’s The Help due to the fact that it’s so damn inoffensive. Though it may have been soured somewhat by Oscar-voting politics and award-baiting tokenism, for the majority of viewers The Help should be a couple of hours well-spent.

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Lee Cassanell