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Originally published August 9, 2011 at 12:04 AM | Page modified August 9, 2011 at 9:16 AM

Movie review

'The Help': Viola Davis elevates film over book

A review of "The Help," a film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's best-selling book. The movie has one ace the book does not: Viola Davis.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

'The Help,' with Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Chris Lowell, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel. Written and directed by Tate Taylor, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett. 137 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic material. Several theaters.

quotes The book was fine, but I'm excited for this cast in the movie! Read more
quotes This is the one film I want to see this weekend! Read more
quotes I read the book, listened to the audio version and now l've seen the movie. They are... Read more

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Is the movie version of "The Help" better than the book? Yes, it is, primarily for one reason: The book doesn't have Viola Davis in it.

Davis, who achieved the near-impossible feat of stealing a scene from Meryl Streep in 2008's "Doubt," plays Aibileen, an African-American maid in early-1960s Jackson, Miss. In Kathryn Stockett's wildly popular novel, she's one of three narrative voices; the others are fellow maid Minny (played by Octavia Spencer), who's more outspoken than the quiet Aibileen, and Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young white woman and new college grad who hits on the idea of writing a nonfiction book from the perspective of black Southern maids.

Tate Taylor's movie adaptation, however, subtly moves Aibileen front and center: Hers is the only voice-over we hear. Speaking softly, with little of the heavy dialect with which Aibileen is written in the book, Davis creates both an unforgettable character and an unexpected star turn. Aibileen doesn't put herself out there; she's quiet, resigned to a way of life that includes petty bullying from her employers, and keeps her more radical notions to herself and her diary. Davis lets us see this woman's strength, her heartbreak that's still fresh from the loss of her son (on the anniversary of his death "every year I can't breathe," she says, in a broken whisper), and the horrifying truth of her life as a domestic worker, raising the children of women who won't let a black person use their toilet. "We love the children when they're little," says Aibileen, shown in smiling interaction with her toddler charge, "and then they turn out just like their mamas."

It's an immensely moving performance, finally giving Davis the wide canvas of a leading role — and it helps to address the imbalance at the heart of the book, though doesn't entirely solve it. Compared with the lives of the maids, and the injustice they face daily, Skeeter's storyline is far less compelling and her character seems callow and unformed. You wonder why the book can't focus more on Aibileen and Minny, particularly in the way it celebrates Skeeter's bravery at the end. (Yes, it was commendable and gutsy for her to embark on such a project — but far more risky for the maids involved. Skeeter, a white woman of means and education, could simply move out of town and start again if things had misfired.)

This problem persists on screen: We're drawn to Skeeter because she's so likable, but we're not sure why she's getting so much attention when far more intriguing characters are just over in the kitchen. But Stone's charmingly natural performance wins us over. All around, "The Help" is wonderfully acted — I'd be remiss in not mentioning the wicked gleam in Spencer's eye, the breathy screwball energy Jessica Chastain brings to a small role, and Sissy Spacek's dotty-Southern-lady zip — and it's a rare treat to see a movie focusing on such a strong female ensemble.

Taylor and the actresses do well with the small moments that bring this troubled era to life: the way Skeeter, however well-meaning, doesn't realize that she's being disrespectful to Aibileen; or how the town's society women smugly raise money "for African children" while turning a blind eye to their maids' lives. But ultimately, this version of "The Help" comes down to Davis' Aibileen, as she strolls down a sunny road to a new life. It may not be any easier than the life that came before — but we can rejoice with her that, maybe just for a moment, she feels free.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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