By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin August 12, 2011 at 4:30AM
Any time a book strikes a chord with a vast number of people, as Kathryn Stockett’s The Help did, there is a mixture of anticipation and trepidation about its transition to the screen. Overall, I think writer-director Tate Taylor has done a good job bringing the book and its characters to life, in concert with an exceptional cast. And, crucially, he has managed to recreate the look and feel of a Southern town in the 1960s, with its separate but unequal citizenry: the well-to-do white folks and their black servants.
If you lived through that time, it is incredible to contemplate how much has changed (and how much hasn’t) over the years, not only in race relations but in attitudes toward women. That’s part of the fascination of watching The Help, which captures so many telling details of—
—everyday life back then.
Some of the white characters (the social queen bee played by Bryce Dallas Howard, the plain-spoken outcast played Jessica Chastain, and Howard’s aged but outspoken mother, Sissy Spacek), while rooted in reality, flirt with caricature at times. I don’t question that there were, or are, people just like them—or that this is meant to be entertainment, and not a documentary—but when the housemaids played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer seem so rich and palpably genuine, without a single false moment, it casts the broader characters in a different light. Of the white characters, only Emma Stone’s portrayal of Skeeter, a college graduate who chafes at the restrictions placed upon her as a young woman in polite society, rings completely true.
I also found it difficult to care as much about the problems facing Skeeter and the other white women when their black counterparts are dealing with much more serious issues, often at the risk of their lives.
But if The Help is less than perfect, it’s still a good movie that covers a lot of ground with an observant eye, and provides great parts for two exceptional actresses, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. It isn’t too soon to be talking about Oscar where these women are concerned; their humanity shines through every scene.