THE HELP (Rated PG-13 for some profanity, adult thematic material): Kathryn Stockett's novel about black women's nanny role in the 1960's very segregated Mississippi, as told from a white woman's perspective, became a best seller in 2009. It has been brought to the screen by a long-time friend of Stocket's, director/writer Tate Taylor, with a wonderful sense of time & place, fascinatingly insightful - if at times a bit overplayed toward the end, likely to capture a large audience.
As seen by the novelist's persona in the film - Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (the intrepid Emma Stone) - stands practically alone among her post-deb friends who flutter through afternoon gatherings, socializing & gushing with gossip as would make any Southern parent proud. Skeeter, fresh out of college, looking & sounding like a young lady braving the society into which she's been captive most of her life, is now ready to start a career in writing - beginning as a Jackson newspaper journalist with the unpleasant job of voicing solutions to solving problems as a "Dear Abby" sort of nonentity.
At the same time, she becomes keenly aware of the treatment by her peers of the black help who leave mornings from their humble homes and ride busses to the grand white homes where, for generations, they have served as maids & mother-surrogates - traditionally loving their wards, silently submissive to the mothers, but seething inwardly for their unfair station in life.
Skeeter is onto something. She wants to pump the nannies for the truth and fill a novel with anecdotes from real life. (We see the stories unfolding even before they slip into Skeeter's manuscript - some sad, some frightening, some funny - all presented astonishingly, candid, from the maids' perspective. All goes well until the book is a published success; only then do the consequences rise to a threatening payment.
In the novel there are three first-person narrators - and, primarily, in the film as well. Minny (Octavia Spencer) who sometimes can't conceal her feelings and becomes irrepressibly outspoken - and must suffer the results; Aibileen (Viola Davis), an older maid who has devotedly raised 17 white children while her own take back seat; and Skeeter herself.
The story unfolds with a mix of awe, fear, tension, and tenderness as we watch the situations unravel. We witness the silliness of the vacuous mothers (perhaps a bit overdone in the movie) as we contrast their empty lives with those of the women they regard as menial in all respects. Stockett has sprinkled the dialog with the rhythm & colloquialisms of the Deep South, nailing it perfectly. Especially in their conversations with one another, the pressure of constant indignities is felt.
Female friendships are the key to the story; the men are largely two-dimensional, stalwart lords over family & the blacks, no questions asked when they pragmatically enter any problematic issue to "right" things Jim Crow style.
Every female character is made totally believable, thanks to the writing and Taylor's tight direction, but Spencer & Davis stand out for absolutely fulfilling their roles, imbuing them with a realistic compression of what black maids must have suffered for generations.
The movie is not perfect. Running well over two hours (137-minutes), it might have been tightened by removing the aborted romance between Skeeter and a zero male, while other scenes that intercut between her and a NY publisher seem intrusive. Also, Bryce Dallas Howard, playing the ubiquitous bitch who gets her comeuppance in spades, is pushed close to farce, while Cicily Tyson's plight as an aging maid becomes maudlin and Sissy Spacek's senile old friend is innocuous, unneeded. But nit-picking aside, the overall results are a fine mix of noble intentions with popular entertainment and laudably succeed in both instances.
Production values (with the exception of lax editing) are tops, but heading the list is cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt's precision-perfect capturing of atmosphere & details, particularly with in-home shots, where a decided Vermeer sense of realism & light becomes almost self-consciously beautiful. (Grade: B+)