Dirs/Scr/Prods:Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor. UK/Ireland. 2008. 79 mins
Questions of identity, self-worth and the allure of re-invention easily prevail over the more conventional thriller elements in Helen, a hypnotic first feature from the writer/director team of Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor. Their one-take short film Who Killed Brown Owl’ (2004) was admired for its technical expertise. Helen is equally accomplished on a visual level and sure to win critical attention for the confidence of its compositions and the sense of calm stillness in the unfolding narrative.
On a dramatic level it is less successful, however, opting for a solemn uniformity of approach that eventually suffocates the life out of the story and becomes unbearably ponderous. The end result is way too monotonous for mainstream tastes but Molloy and Lawlor are talents to watch and the film should have a life on the Festival circuit.
Helen begins with what could be the elements of a traditional thriller. A teenage girl called Joy is missing. Police undertake a meticulous search of a wooded area. Parents numb with grief are asked to identify personal belongings. The agonising focus on each individual moment lends emotional weight to what are very familiar developments.
But the film takes a completely different turn when Helen (Annie Townsend) agrees to play Joy in a police reconstruction of the missing girl’s last known movements. Helen is a lonely teenager who lives in a care home and works as a chambermaid at an anonymous hotel. When she meets Joy’s parents and her boyfriend, Helen discovers a life far more appealing than her own.
There is an element of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley in Helen as she adopts Joy’s hairstyle, starts to wear her clothes and finds herself welcomed into the missing girl’s family. It is not the outcome of murderous manoeuvring but a much more benign process in which the innocent Helen is drawn to an identity that seems much more complete than her own.
Reminiscent of early Atom Egoyan (Speaking Parts/The Adjuster) and the work of the Dardenne brothers, Helen is initially intriguing as the filmmakers sustain an air of mystery. They scrutinise faces with extreme close-ups and punctuate the story by fading to long, lingering shots of blackness. There is a sense of restraint and understatement unusual in contemporary Irish and British cinema that lends the film an affinity with the likes of Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated or Duane Hopkins Better Things.
The intrigue eventual palls because of the lack of variety in the pacing and a succession of encounters and exchanges that never quite ring true. Eve ry conversation seems constructed around pregnant pauses and enigma. Characters react to a whole range of events in the same numb, muted fashion and there may be those frustrated that the mystery of Joy’s disappearance assumes little importance in the overall story.
Crisply photographed by Ole Birkeland, Helen is well-served by Annie Townsend who withstands the unblinking gaze of the camera and makes Helen a character whose past we yearn to discover.
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