Spider-Man's new squeeze Emma Stone plays a southern belle and aspiring journalist who stirs up 1960s Mississippi society when she decides to interview the black women who have spent their lives taking care of prominent southern families. The scandals and friendships that emerge from Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel are splendidly borne out by the mostly female cast, particularly Oscar winner Octavia Spencer and Best Actress nominee Viola Davis as the doughty ladies of the title.
Bryce Dallas Howard
It's always interesting when authors heartily approve the big-screen adaptations of their work, even when the films are pale reflections of the original. The Amber Spyglass, anyone?
The Help is one such film. Based on the best-selling book by Kathryn Stockett, an intimate and affectionately written tale about grassroots civil rights has been transformed by director Tate Taylor (who was childhood friends with Stockett) into a highlight reel of caricatures and amplified emotion.
Emma Stone plays Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, an aspiring journalist in 1960s Mississippi, who returns home from college to find her family's long-time maid Constantine inexplicably disappeared, prompting her to question the "separate but equal" maxim that most of her Mississippi contemporaries live by and defy her conventional upper-class upbringing.
And so she sets about writing a secret book with the local black maids about what it's like working for their snooty white employers, from raising their children (who then grow up to despise them), to being forced to use separate bathrooms in case of "disease".
A good adaptation often reduces the number of plot events to make way for characterisation, or to allow the plot to breathe. But this film races along doggedly recapping the book, fearful of omitting anything that its well-read audience might remember. Taylor has kept the same number of events and just oversimplified the characters.
One significant event involving Skeeter's mother turns her into a simpering coward, a much less complex representative of the time than that of the book, a woman torn between her genuine affection for people who have worked for her for thirty years, and her deeply ingrained and very real racism.
Jessica Chastain's white trash outsider Celia Foote is similarly reduced to a giggling simpleton who is so annoying that you almost sympathise with the tyrannical Hilly Hollbrook: we wouldn't want to play bridge anywhere near Celia's laugh either.
Though it will certainly garner a few laughs and even more tears, the film has lost much of the book's humility, a quality that made it an accessible town drama first and foremost and a historical comment piece second. This feels more preachy - and yet we care less because characters don't feel quite so real.
That's not to say that there is nothing good here. Viola Davis and Ocatavia Spencer put in terrific performances as the motherly Aibileen and feisty Minny (and provide most of the laughs), while Bryce Dallas Howard makes Hilly Holbrook an even more hideous Stepford wife villain than Stockett did.
Emma Stone is rather wasted as the most thinly drawn character of them all, essentially a plot device that enables us to hear the black maids' stories.
Rather like a good trailer, the film leaves you wanting so much more. A guaranteed tear-jerker that serves as a decent reminder of America's very own Apartheid, it's fine as a slice of history.
As a story though, it's sadly underwhelming.