Viola plays Aibileen, a maid in the 1960s Mississippi, who, encouraged by a young white aspiring journalist, starts telling her story of working for white families, raising their children and the injustices she has to deal with. It’s a journey for Aibileen herself, as she learns about courage and stops being afraid of taking her destiny into her own hands. It’s a very dramatic role and written with plenty of tears and breakdowns, therefore offering a lot of Oscar scenes.
To get this out of the way: I really like this performance, because it’s the stuff I usually go for: an emotionally rich character, with plenty of tears & played with great dignity & skill. And Viola does all that, but with the film on her side: unlike Meryl, she can easily depend on what the screenplay has to offer and most of the scenes she’s in are written in her favour, giving her the chance to steal it from her co-stars. Her presence is great for the film, because you know something interesting is about to happen and she brings the real into The Help by playing it with no false moves.
Never do we doubt that she clearly understands Aibileen and her experience as an actress (and maybe also her life experience) is used at its best here: it seems like she knows exactly where to look, where the camera is, when to hold back on her emotions and when to allow the tears. And boy, do we get plenty of tears: her emotional scenes are truly heartbreaking – from the story about her son to the final confrontation with Miss Hilly. From the loving way she talks to the little girl she takes care of to the quiet humility when having to be in the presence of any racist conversation.
Viola does an amazing job in making it look so easy and natural and relatable. Her performance feels so honest because she immediately creates an emotional connection with the audience – it’s a likeable character that turns into a memorable performance because of Viola’s ability of delivering the exact emotions that a viewer would expect. While it’s not connected to the actual performance, the one issue I’d have with the nomination is that I’m not 100% convinced this is a leading performance. But Viola is so good at what she does and, with the writing on her side, she starts and ends the film, therefore leaving the overall impression that The Help is all about her; when it’s not. It’s an almost from me.