Film reviews: The Help | Sket | Miss Bala | Anonymous | The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

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Our film critic takes a look at some of the best and worst of this week’s new releases...

The Help (12A) **

Directed by: Tate Taylor

Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain

AN INTERESTING and provocative story told in a broad, lachrymose fashion, The Help filters the harsh realities of the Civil Rights movement through the experiences of a white protagonist and, in the process, manages to transform a tale of struggle into a feel-good piece of fluff. Adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller, its sole merit is Viola Davis’s quietly powerful, graceful performance as Aibileen, Mississippi housemaid coerced by aspiring journalist, novelist and recent college graduate Skeeter (Emma Stone) into sharing her life story for the purposes of a book that Skeeter has optimistically pitched to an editor in New York. Where the rest of the characters conform to one-note racial stereotypes – be they folksy, fried-chicken cooking servants or their uptight, racist Southern dame employers – Davis manages to cut through the layers of syrup to give us a sense of a woman seething with rage at an inhuman world. It’s mesmerising work, but it exposes the rest of the film for the hooey it is as writer/director Tate Taylor opts to keep the mood light with broad comedy and neat resolutions that ensure every wrong is righted – usually by benevolent white folks whose actions help them feel better about themselves.

Sket (15) **

Directed by: Nirpal Bhogal

Starring: Ashley Walters, Lily Loveless, Emma Hartley-Miller

A PREPOSTEROUS, nonsensical London street gang drama, Sket might have deserved a modicum of some respect for putting women front-and-centre were its story not simultaneously too ludicrous to take seriously as a state-of-the-nation provocation and too worthy to work as gnarly exploitation fare. That story revolves around Kayla (Aimee Kelly), a troubled 16-year-old Geordie girl newly arrived with her older sister on a London council estate after the death of their mother. Angry about being uprooted and torn away from her friends, she falls in with an all-girl gang who steal cash from newsagents, smoke weed and regularly dish out beatings to blokes who casually disrespect them. The film is at its best in these early scenes, which are at least alive to the way gangs offer vulnerable people a sense of security and belonging. There’s some good interplay too between the tougher-than-she-looks Kayla and the gang’s hard-faced leader Danielle (Emma Hartley-Miller). So it’s too bad that the film chooses to jump the shark in spectacular fashion by having Kayla become hell-bent on exacting a violent revenge on local drug kingpin and rapist Trey (Ashley Walters) after he kicks her sister to death in the street. The unconvincing results play out like Death Wish fronted by Cheryl Cole.

Miss Bala (15) ****

Directed by: Gerardo Naranjo

Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Irene Azuela, Miguel Couturier

DESPITE featuring a plot that frequently teeters on the brink of absurdity, Miss Bala works precisely because of how crazy it all seems. A sort of Mexican Miami Vice that delves into the cross-border narcotics trade, it’s built around a ripped-from-the-headlines story involving a local beauty queen who became embroiled in the drug gangs that rule the streets of Baja California. Writer/director Gerardo Naranjo may have fabricated all the other details of the story, but he’s still managed to create a plausible, hard-hitting action thriller that explores the ways in which no facet of life is untouched by the stench of corruption and violence that trafficking generates. The film is anchored by a terrific, grounded performance from newcomer Stephanie Sigman, who plays Laura, a working-class girl whose modest dream of achieving a better life via the titular beauty pageant is railroaded in the most horrific way when she witnesses a gang hit on an American DEA agent. Naranjo reveals himself to be a pretty accomplished action director, but it’s his ability to tease out the details of his complex, socially aware story in subtle, sophisticated ways that ensures it remains compelling right to its thrillingly ambiguous ending.

Anonymous (12a) **

Directed by: Roland Emmerich

Starring: Rhys Ifans, Rafe Spall, Joely Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave

UNLIKELY to give Shakespeare purists too many sleepless nights, Roland Emmerich’s preposterous thriller about the conspiracy to cover up the true author of the Bard’s work sabotages its own outlandish conceits with so many convoluted storylines it quickly stops being fun. Saddled with an exposition-heavy script that attempts to link the struggle to find a successor to Elizabeth I with a conspiracy to cover up the authorship of the plays, the film makes a hash of ripe material that should play to the masses. The conflicting tone doesn’t help matters. As William Shakespeare, Rafe Spall appears to be going for broad comedy, playing him as a drunken buffoon and opportunistic fraudster. Unfortunately the rest of the cast appears to be playing it straight – or as straight as the material will allow. Rhys Ifans does provide a degree of dignity as Edward de Vere, whom the film fancies as the real author of the work. But it’s hard to see why we should care, especially as the time-jumping structure, impenetrable court intrigue, wacky incest subplots and mud-splattered cinematography make it hard to decipher what’s really going on.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (U) ****

Directed by: Steven SpIElberg

Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Daniel Craig

DISPLAYING the giddy-as-a-schoolboy energy that made the first three Indiana Jones films such a joy, The Adventures of Tintin finds Steven Spielberg back on blockbuster form after too many years on autopilot. It also marks his first foray into performance-capture CG animation, but Spielberg seems to have solved the “dead-eye” issue that has plagued similar productions. His Tintin (Jamie Bell) is full of twinkly-eyed vitality, which honours Hergé’s source material while deviating enough to ensure it works as a proper movie experience in its own right. In high adventure mode the film pinballs Tintin and his faithful, scene-stealing dog Snowy across the globe in search of sunken treasure, alongside Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis). The lovingly crafted script – by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish – is loaded with gags and real heart and Spielberg makes the most of the technology to let rip with some stunning action.