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The Help puts polished sheen on turbulent times

Oprah book club favourite gets worthy big screen adaptation

The Help

Now playing at International Village, Park Theatre

We love it when the help spills the beans, dont we? Thats why TVs Upstairs Downstairs was so successful (and recently remade), and why we salivate at the thought of Brad and Angelinas nanny telling all. An all-access pass to the human foibles of so-called pillars of the community is just too juicy to resist.

Thats why Oprahs book club and the rest of the world has been waiting with baited breath for the big-screen adaptation of Kathryn Stocketts best-seller. The Help is set in early 60s Jackson, Mississippi, and tells the story from the point of view of African American maids who worked in white households, women who cuddled and raised white babies, but couldnt use the same dish or spoon as their employers.

The maids are given a voice thanks to fresh-from-college Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), who is so desperate to be a writer that she takes on a weekly cleaning column for the local paper. Raised, as many of her Ole Miss alumna were, on a plantation, Skeeter doesnt know the first thing about cleanin no houses, so she starts a dialogue with a friends maid, Aibileen (Viola Davis, excellent).

Watching the abuses the help endure at the hands of queen bee Hilly Holbrook (a perfectly icy Bryce Dallas Howard), Skeeter smells a real story: what life is like for the black women who love white babies and then watch them turn into their mothers.

We love them and they love us, but they cant even use the toilet in our house, says Skeeter.

Despite the dangersJim Crow laws prevented gossip against white employersAibileen starts to open up. But Skeeters potential book editor (Mary Steenbergen) says shell need testimony from dozens of maids before a book deal can be considered. It takes the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers to give the women courage. Then the stories, from kind to horrific, start to unspool.

At first glance, these actors look too young to play the roles, until you realize that women were married, mothers, and firmly entrenched in Machiavellian Garden Club politics by the time they were in their early 20s.

Current movie darling Stone delivers in her role. Even though her character drives the action, this isnt really her movie. The film belongs to Aibileen, without whose courage the book would never have been written, and to Minny (Octavia Spencer), both the heart of the film and its comic relief. Minny goes from testy to tender, particularly when dealing with her clueless new employer Celia (Jessica Chastain), castigated as white trash by Hilly and left to wander her big house alone.

Celia is a highlight, as is Sissy Spacek as Hillys scattered mama, and the excellent Allison Janney as a woman who knows cancer will get the better of her before change comes to her neck of the woods. Screenwriters have the unenviable task of squeezing a half-dozen main characters into a two-hour movie: some plotlines were necessarily trimmed. Skeeters romance in the book is one such casualty, marginalizing the men in the story almost completely. But this is about war fought on the home front and not in the boardroom, and the absence of men is called for.

A little less set dressing and a little more focus on the moments that truly defined the periodMinnies daughter quitting school to become a maid like her mother, for examplewould have resulted in less pretty, more power. But there are enough grey patches in the sunshiny gloss to get the message across. The Help is about race in turbulent times, but its also about self worth on both ends of that ridiculous colour bar.