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Based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help explores the touching relationship between two black maids in 1960s Mississippi.

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Written for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor, the film is an embarrassment of acting riches, anchored by tour-de-force performances from Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.

Oscar nominations will be forthcoming.

Every role is perfectly cast including Sissy Spacek in scene-stealing form as an outspoken southern matriarch with a faltering memory, who delights in her racist daughter’s humiliation.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more superb acting ensemble.

The Help marries strong and often wickedly funny performances with a sharp script and heartfelt emotion, evoking an era of social upheaval and racial tensions.

Nowhere is this more pronounced in Taylor’s film than a tense scene in which black bus passengers flee, having just learned from the driver about a racist killing on the streets.

White passengers appear more concerned with the inconvenience to their journey.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) returns home to Jackson after graduating from university with dreams of becoming a writer.

She is horrified to learn that her family’s beloved maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson) has quit and that one of the neighbours, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), is proposing that black workers should have to use separate bathrooms.

“They carry different diseases to us,” asserts Hilly coldly.

Determined to end the discrimination, Skeeter pitches a book to editor Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen), detailing the extraordinary lives of the maids, who have spent countless years raising white children.

At first, the maids are reluctant to talk but Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) eventually shares her thoughts as she comes to terms with the recent loss of her only son.

Meanwhile, fiercely outspoken Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), renowned for her chocolate pies, loses her job as Hilly’s maid and finds work instead with social outcast Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain).

As Hilly continues with her crusade for segregation throughout Jackson, Skeeter’s secret novel gathers momentum.

The Help is narrated in soft, lilting tones by Aibileen, whose opening line - “Looking after white babies, that’s what I do” - perfectly encapsulates her invaluable contribution to life in Jackson.

Davis and Spencer lead the cast magnificently, the unerring friendship between their characters providing a hook for every other performance, including Chastain as a lovable ditz and Howard as the society queen bee, who stings anyone that gets in her way.

The script is littered with delicious one-liners (“Love and hate are two horns on the same goat... and you need a goat!”) ebbing and flowing between the various storylines, much like the Pearl River that cuts through the state and washes away so many sins.

Nothing, however, will cleanse the memory of those turbulent times.

As the characters realise, to move forward, you invariably have to look back.

Rating: 8/10

The Help (12A, 146 mins) Drama. Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Mike Vogel, Mary Steenburgen, Cicely Tyson.

Director: Tate Taylor.

Released: October 26 (UK & Ireland)

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