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Hollywood outdoes itself on 'The Help'

"The Help's" remarkable ensemble of women offers enough great performances to practically fill the actress categories at the Oscars.

From its roots as a collaboration between lifelong friends Kathryn Stockett, who wrote the best-selling novel, and Tate Taylor, the film's writer-director, through the pitch-perfect casting, "The Help" simply seems to be blessed.

It's hard to imagine a better movie coming out of the screen adaptation of Stockett's tale of friendship and common cause among black maids and an aspiring white writer in Jackson, Miss., in 1963.

The film maybe is a bit longer than it needs to be, but that's quibbling. This is popular big-screen entertainment at its best. Provocative without turning preachy, tender without tumbling into sentimentality, "The Help" is enormously enjoyable.

That's thanks to the rich characters Stockett created, to the marvelous empathy among the actresses portraying them, and to the previously untested talent of filmmaker Taylor. He and Stockett grew up in Jackson a decade or so after the novel's events, but the deep sense of time and place Stockett presented on the page is preserved in the film. Taylor combines grandly detailed sets, costumes and hairdos with well-chosen music to create a time capsule of a way of life eroding amid the civil rights movement.

The characters don't fully realize the impact of the changes swirling around them, allowing viewers with half a century's cultural hindsight to live the events through these women's eyes in a fresh way.

With an earnestness that feels born out of decency and large-mindedness, Emma Stone is ideal as Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, the Ole Miss graduate who comes home to Jackson dreaming of a writing career in New York. Advised by a Manhattan publisher to try something daring, Skeeter convinces Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) to share stories of her life as a black maid cleaning up after white people and raising their children.

Soon Aibileen's friend, the outspoken Minny (Octavia Spencer), is confiding her experiences. As racial tension and violence erupt throughout the South, more maids step forward to tell of the hardships, humiliations and occasional subversive triumphs.

Davis, a past Oscar nominee for "Doubt," gives a master class in quiet fortitude, Aibileen's pain, anger and compassion visible in every glimpse.

Spencer's the great breakout here. The sass and biting comedy she infuses in Minny are delights.

As Skeeter's old pal Hilly, the town's autocrat of racial propriety, Bryce Dallas Howard is truly scary, playing against her usual sweet type. Hilly and some of her squealing, cloying cronies at times seem like caricatures. Yet Howard really goes for it, reveling in her character's self-righteousness and "separate but equal" cruelty.

The cast is superbly filled out by Allison Janney as Skeeter's conflicted mother; Jessica Chastain as Minny's lonely new boss; Cicely Tyson as Skeeter's beloved maid; Ahna O'Reilly as Aibileen's employer; and Sissy Spacek in a scene-stealing role as Hilly's mother.

Taylor had secured the film rights and began writing the screenplay before the novel came out. Chris Columbus signed on as a producer and landed it at Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks Pictures.

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