I read the screenplay of this some time ago when Oscar was buzzing all over it and I loved it, a real page turner. All the characters sprang to life for me and the story whipped along at a cracking pace. The relationship between Minnie and Celia is the one I was most invested in and, on the page, most moved by.
Because of this, and the hype, I was excited to see the film. I like Emma Stone and have been watching her star rise with interest. Jessica Chastain shone in The Debt so I was interested to watch her Oscar nominated performance alongside other nominees Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, the latter of whom took home the little bald chap for Best Supporting Actress.
The story interweaves the relationships of two African-American maids and the southern belles they work for during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
It is all held together by Skeeter, an aspiring author and anti-belle, who persuades the maids to provide material for what becomes an anonymous exposé and publishing sensation.
Imagine my disappointment when the film began and I couldn’t understand a word of the voice over by Viola Davis. I was tempted to grab my laptop and read along with her. I was actually quite shocked by this and it put my back up so that I was aware I was actively disliking the film.
I found Emma Stone as the aspiring author Skeeter to be speaking with an affected lisp of some sort that seemed to parody the speech of her ancient maid Constantine, played appallingly by Cicely Tyson – seriously one of the most hackneyed film performances I have ever seen. Dreadful.
Hilly’s child is also incomprehensible as she struggles to say ‘I am kind, I am smart, I am important.’ Even now I’m saying that in a terrible piss-take voice and it’s a key phrase and moment that shows us Aibileen’s oh-so-perfect character.
The belles are one dimensional bad guys whose actions are so hateful and come so thick and fast at the beginning that we are left in no doubt as to how we should feel towards them. Talk about beating your audience over the head with a stupid stick. The racism was enough but then there’s child cruelty and spite and snobbery and all of this without even a hint of personality.
It seems as though The Stepford Wives have wandered over from another film as Bryce Dallas Howard, Anna Camp et al just copy each other’s vacant bitchiness. This may well have been director Tate Tyler’s intention in order to contrast with and therefore highlight the wonderful and altruistic behaviour of Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. Some subtlety would have worked.
I did warm up to the film, how could I not with such an uplifting tale of courage and sacrifice? Viola Davis puts in a terrific, heart-warming performance and Chastain displays great talent with her energy and fully rounded character; she acts the other belles off the screen and I think she was more deserving of the bald chap than Spencer but perhaps it was the infamous chocolate pie that got her the award and all that it symbolised.
I think a lot of the film’s weaknesses lie with the director Tate Taylor whose previous films include the feature Pretty Ugly People, 2008 (one rotten review on Rotten Tomatoes), and a short. Oh yes, he was also the childhood friend of the novel’s author, Kathryn Stockett.
He seems to get his actors to perform the same banal actions – both Stone and Davis touch their foreheads when showing great stress and clutching stomachs seems to denote ‘a moment of great emotional impact’ for several characters. He did however write the screenplay which I did like and despite slamming the film quite hard it did reel me in and I was moved at the end.
Overall I think this suffered from an inexperienced director and some weak characters which I didn’t spot in the script. Would I have liked the film better if I hadn’t read the script first? Probably. As it is I give it one thumb up and one thumb down.