DIRECTED BY: Tate Taylor
STARRING: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard
The Help was one of the big movies of the year in the States, where it sparked a bit of controversy in my old adopted hometown when some women turned up at the local premiere dressed as Southern society ladies. Which seemed perfectly sensible, since the women themselves were white, and did not disgrace themselves by pretending to be African American housemaids. There were no complaints from the black community either but plenty of people were offended on their behalf, and they kept the letters page of the local paper full for a few weeks.
And that was about as tense as it got. Because, for the most part, The Help is not the kind of film that challenges anyone to get worked up about anything. It’s a nice movie that plays it safe, and whose message is that racism is terrible but not all white folks are vicious monsters, so why can’t we all just get along?
Adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling book, the film is set in Mississippi in the 1960s, with the Civil Right movement about to kick into full swing. Though not that you’d know it in Help-land, where the really messy stuff doesn’t get much of a look-in.
The excellent Emma Stone stars as Skeeter Phelan, a young white college graduate who returns to her small home town to embark on a career as a writer but finds that no one will take her seriously. She also discovers that Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the black maid who raised her, is no longer employed in the home.
Angry at how things have developed – but recognising a great angle all the same – Skeeter befriends some of the “help” from around town, and starts to gather their stories for a book. Because, well, despite what’s happening elsewhere (the streets of Alabama, say), these black folks really need a white hero. Or maybe that’s a tad cynical.
In any case, Skeeter’s two main sources are Aibileen and Minny. Aibileen (Viola Davis) has been a nanny all her life, lovingly raising little white girls who, almost without fail, still manage to turn out just like their mothers.
Minny (Octavia Spencer) has spent years working for social climbing harridan Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), only to be fired and take up working for young bride Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), who’s married up and wants to fool her businessman husband into believing she’s the perfect housewife.
It’s a pleasant and heartfelt story with a cast of likeable (and suitably despicable) characters, played very well by a fine ensemble of actors. Emma Stone is a very impressive actress and she does well here in what is billed as the lead role, but really it’s Davis and Spencer who lead the story, as well they should, and therefore steal the limelight. Jessica Chastain, too, gives a touching and occasionally funny performance.
In the end it’s just a bit too nice, a little too broadly drawn, and pitched too obviously towards the Oprah fanclub.
But nice can be alright, and for what it is, The Help is an enjoyable and well made piece of entertainment.
DIRECTED BY: Roland Emmerich
STARRING: Rhys Ifans, Rafe Spall, Joley Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave
Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012. Director Roland Emmerich has an obvious fondness for the end of civilization as we know it. What none of us ever suspected was that he might have a soft spot for Shakespeare, too. Or more to the point, for whoever wrote Shakespeare’s stuff.
Because it couldn’t have been the man himself, or so the old theories go. He came from poor stock, the son of an illiterate. He was a travelling actor, and not a very good one. And he had no connections in the royal court. On top of that, Anonymous paints him as a clown, an inarticulate buffoon with all the social graces of a drunk monkey. Shakespeare (Spall) isn’t a genius but a deceitful little eejit who claims credit that isn’t his own.
Instead, the great new plays that are causing a stir in London were written by Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford. De Vere (Ifans) has all the grace and bearing of a great intellectual, and has ties with Queen Elizabeth (the younger played by Richardson, the older by Redgrave) that may be bloodline, romantic, or both. Nothing new there, then.
And it all might have made for a fine conspiracy yarn if Emmerich had stuck to his tried and tested storytelling guns. He might have been forgiven for throwing in an exploding palace or two, or even suggesting that Hamlet was written by a committee of violent aliens.
Instead he offers up a story that’s less concerned with the Bard than it is with convoluted royal shenanigans and the plot by the earl of Essex (Sam Reid) to overthrow the queen. I’m sure there’s someone who will be able to make sense of who’s who, and what’s what in the midst of the flashbacks and general confusion, but it’s not me.
I tried to amuse myself by recalling lines from Macbeth, but that brought back horrifying memories of my Leaving and I passed out with terror. I dreamed I was late for school and I didn’t have my homework done. I told my English teacher the Earl of Oxford was working on it, and he gave me detention for a week.
Meanwhile Roland Emmerich remains a free man.