Crisco, a colourless, unctuously smooth brand of vegetable shortening that's a mainstay in kitchens across the United States, is a true wonder product - as useful for removing eye bags as it is for crisping up fried chicken. So we are told in one scene of The Help, actor-turned-director Tate Taylor's blandly enjoyable adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's Civil Rights-themed bestseller, and there's little reason to doubt this endorsement: the entire film appears to have been made of the stuff.
As lily-white a tale of the black experience as could imaginably be put to screen in the 21st century, Taylor's polished period piece raises something of an if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest question: if the story of the publication of a landmark book, one that changed attitudes to race relations in an especially bigoted corner of the Deep South, never really happened, what does it ultimately signify? If the film inevitably inherits the unearned self-importance of Stockett's novel, however, it remains a hearty and stirring fiction, its over-ironed social and moral landscape lent feeling and texture by a busily stranded narrative and some empathetic performances that elegantly separate the human truths from the screenplay's homilies.
Chief among these is Viola Davis, deservedly a dead cert for Oscar recognition in 2012: as written, the relentlessly stoic, noble Aibileen should be a scarcely penetrable stereotype, yet she becomes bruised flesh and blood through Davis's rich line readings and creased body language.
The rest of the ensemble is a mixed bag, ranging from the wonderful Jessica Chastain, as a guilelessly liberal trophy wife, to the overly panto-ready Bryce Dallas Howard, as the queen bee of the oppressors - with a disappointingly de-amped Emma Stone, as our mostly symbolic protagonist, somewhere in between. If you find your eyes getting annoyingly moist at points of this airbrushed but effective heartwarmer, give the bulk of the credit (or blame) to Davis, and try a little Crisco.