I have been looking forward to seeing this film since I read the book earlier this year. First I have to say is if you intend to see the film I highly recommend reading the book first, not because you need to for understanding the story but purely because the book is fantastic.
The film certainly does the book credit, Tate Taylor (who also directs) is a relative newcomer to the writer/director gig having only two previous credits (Pretty Ugly People and Chicken Party), but he adapted the novel well with few embellishments and tweaks to the storyline. This is entirely understandable, those who have read the book know there are over 400 pages to contend with, so some cutting was required to make it 146 minutes. Now you may think this in itself is far too long for a film about maids in Jackson Mississippi during the early Sixties, but you honestly don't feel the time passing. If you are like me when a film is over long and it drags, your bum becomes numb and your mind wanders. My attention was never drawn away from the screen.
A quick overview of the plot for those who have not had the chance to read The Help yet. It focuses on the lives of three women: two maids Aibileen and Minny, and one white woman Miss Skeeter.
Miss Skeeter has returned home from college to find her own maid Constantine gone, her friends married and blooming with children, her mother ill but desperate for her daughter to find a man, and her own views desperately different to those around her. Aibileen has raised white children for years while her own son went to college and then tragically died before he could make something of his education. And finally Minny is a loud-mouthed mother of many with a husband who beats her and an axe to grind with her former employers. She is also the reason I will be quite suspect of anybody giving me chocolate pie.
Miss Skeeter gains employment as a columnist for household cleaning, of course being white and privileged she has no idea how to answer the queries coming in so obtains the advice of her friend's maid Aibileen. During their discourses Skeeter realises the maids are being treated appallingly, especially with the introduction by her friend Hilly (played magnificently by Bryce Dallas Howard, Ron's daughter) of the health initiative to give all 'coloureds' their own bathroom so they don't pass on their diseases to the whites. It is obviously a highly intolerable time, one that I can't imagine living in and I thank the gods I have grown up largely unaware of racism in my own community.
And so Skeeter decides to write a book from the perspective of the help, to show the unfair treatment these women have received when they effectively raise the children of the rich and apparently useless.
The casting of this film is perfect. Emma Stone (Easy A, Zombieland) captures the essence (if not the height) of Skeeter as a keen writer appalled by the injustices toward the black women she sees; Viola Davis (Eat Pray Love) is exactly how I imagined Aibileen, a calm and loving figure but has a wealth of strength in her convictions; and Octavia Spencer (The Nines) is vivacious and has enormous strength of character but also displays her vulnerability in a touching scene between maid and employer after her latest bout of domestic abuse.
The supporting cast too are excellent and proof of the formidable talent among women both young and 'old' in Hollywood. Allison Janney (West Wing, Juno) is one my favourite actresses and is quite fantastic as Skeeter's 'dying' mother who interchanges her wigs but never her determination for Skeeter to get a man and forget about her former maid. It is hard to imagine that even as recently as the sixties it was still the main focus of a young woman to get a man and settle down and have babies, whereas now you are more likely to find someone like Skeeter who wants to have a career. Yet it has to be pointed out our Miss Skeeter is supposed to be a very tall gangly girl with crazy frizzy hair who does not fit the social norms of looks, so perhaps this is more likely to be the reason she pursues her education rather than focus on boys.
Bryce Dallas Howard is also on top form as the manipulative Hilly Holbrook, the Queen Bee of her clique who has put her mother in a home and ensures newcomer Celia (Jessica Chastain, Tree of Life) is shunned by the populous of women because she is 'white trash', but really because she married Hilly's former beau Johnny.
The relationships of these women are fascinating to read about and to watch, it is shame that more of the interactions between the men and women could not have more screen time as they are an important part of the book. Here I am referring to the romance of Skeeter and Stuart, a young southern gentleman who makes a less than perfect first impression on Skeeter. In the book there is an entire story of Stuart's previous relationship, his family and the differences between wealthy families in the South who have political power and those who do not. The revelations after the release of the book are entirely different from book to film, but both convey the same message and both are powerful in their respective mediums. I won't spoil this (as I won't spoil the relationship between Minny and why you may be put off chocolate forever) but I will say I felt just the same from book to film and there was welling of the eyes involved both times!
I was highly impressed with the film, being such a fan of the book I could have been bitterly disappointed had the story been played with too much or the characters been miscast. It has succeeded on both counts, the high calibre of acting along with a great script ensured this film was one of the most successful of the year.
I still strongly recommend reading the book but if you have no time or intention to do so this is a stand alone film, a great introduction to part of the civil rights process in the USA, and simply a genuinely good couple of hours of entertainment with a little education on racism thrown in.