The Help, a zeitgeist-capturing mega-hit adapted from the Kathryn Stockett bestseller, clearly tells America something about itself that it wants to hear - but it also, rather cannily, goes some way towards dramatising the process whereby such tales are told. Tate Taylor's film is a story formed of stories, and women's stories in particular: its heroine, Eugenia-known-as-Skeeter (Emma Stone) is a young journalist in Jim Crow-era Mississippi collecting the testimonies of those black domestics employed to raise a generation of Caucasians whose moms were off socialising and playing bridge - the insinuation being that their charges would grow up to become precisely those good liberal voters who were to elect Denzel Best Actor at the Oscars, and Barack Obama into the White House a short while after that. "Courage sometimes skips a generation," somebody mutters, and that's the film's theme, if not its entire raison d'être, in a nutshell.
The drama unfolds within a community that is almost entirely rulebound. Aside from the Crow laws, fostering apartheid on buses and in public spaces, other forms of social prejudice are shown at work. The maids wonder whether their participation in Skeeter's project might constitute an unacceptable crossing of racial lines, and cost them their jobs. We're even offered a white outcast in Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), whose crime - in the eyes of the community's snooty socialites - is to have fallen pregnant outside of marriage, and it's another sign of Chastain's emergent skill that this strand feels a little more significant than the straggly loose end it really is.
Taylor is moderately ambitious; he's cramming a lot into these two-and-a-half hours. Part of The Help's project is to interrogate the domestic stereotype as represented by Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen in countless Hollywood sudsers (the Stepin Fetchits of this world remain, as yet, at large), and to give these characters credible home lives and backstories. The maids and cooks here are no longer chirpy whistlers, but tired and worn down: Viola Davis gives her Aibileen a weary, hobbling gait, borne of years of bowing and scraping. At the same time, though, The Help is also a Disney-backed women's picture, which means lots of easy-access cooking (loving pans over plates of fried chicken and pies, Crisco cooking oil drizzled across every frame as a metaphor for the unifying whole), cleaning, talking, sharing and nurturing, to go alongside those elements that wouldn't have been allowed in the women's pictures of the 1930s or 40s: (mild) bad language and gross-out humour, with particular emphasis on the lavatory, and all things collected therein.
The toilet symbol is at once useful to the film's social history (maids were expected to use separate facilities from their masters, effectively conferring unclean status upon them) and rather obvious (hey, we all poop, right?), only confirming one's initial suspicions that the film is unlikely to do for its chosen minority what the higher-minded Far From Heaven did for another. With so much to cram in, Taylor tends to paint his world in easily grasped, black-and-white strokes. Skeeter is "different", too, we grasp, because she's reached her mid-twenties without getting married, and is more concerned with using her mind than fostering the kind of superficial beauty that would ensnare a beau; the strand that attempts to normalise her, fixing her up with an inchoate Mad Man almost certainly destined to be caught bending his secretary over a desk, remains the least engaging - and this despite Stone's usual game attempts to enliven every scene she's in.
The approach yields diminishing returns in its final hour, as Skeeter's book is published, and the blinkered society folk see - set out before them in stark, again black-and-white print - just how they've overlooked or mistreated those around them; the overall intent is uplift, yet the narrative builds to a somewhat specious plateau from its nice white liberal protagonist can jet off to her new life in the city, while her subjects - after a brief standing ovation - return to the heavy lifting of their day jobs: is this the true nature of progress in the US, that one person benefits from the labours of many? (By way of softening the blow, Taylor throws in an end-credits song - its lyrics never shying from "uphill journeys" and "long climbs" - straight outta the Say What You See school.)
Yet whenever these women come together, The Help begins to exert a kind of emotional pull; it functions best when it purges its bland, insipid menfolk from the frame, and allows these actresses to talk to or sass one another. Taylor has landed himself a dream ensemble, particularly if you have a redhead fetish (Stone, Chastain and Bryce Dallas Howard - my, movie gods, how you spoil us so), with the riches extending as far as Allison Janney as Stone's mother - though the latter's revelation of (terminal?) illness is the point at which the film takes on too much from the book, and struggles to do it all justice. (It needs help of its own.) It's far from surprising - anyone who uses the N-word eventually eats shit - and the path towards enlightenment may be a bit too sundappled from the off to be true, but you do feel these strong, smart, funny women lifting the material as and when they can, and allowing the film to work in spite of its treaclier instincts. At the very least, The Help will provide a quality wallow: I watched it on a holiday, after a large meal (prepared, I should point out, with my own hands), which felt about right.
The Help is available on DVD from Monday.