Dir/scr: Sandra Nettelbeck. US. 2009. 119 mins.
A woman suffering from suicidal depression would present a challenge to any film-maker as the subject of a film, and Sandra Nettelbeck’s Helen - which is about just that - fails to nail it in a cinematic fashion. Well-intentioned and heartfelt it may be, but the film, which runs to a long 119 minutes, is uncompromisingly bleak and makes few concessions to traditional movie expectations. Commercial prospects are limited for Helen, which might have a stronger life in educational and therapeutic applications.
It’s a valiant effort by Nettelbeck, for whom the film is a labour of love, but perhaps it’s inevitable that this subject can’t engage an audience. The key problem here is that just as Helen withdraws into herself and alienates her family, so also alienates the audience. Although lead actress Ashley Judd gives it her all in the title role, her character is emotionally absent for most of the film and Goran Visnjic is left to carry the audience as her exasperated and patient husband.
Marking Nettelbeck’s (Mostly Martha) first English language feature, Helen is the story of an ostensibly happy and successful woman whose life is torn apart by the illness. With a daughter from her first marriage and an adoring second husband, Helen is a talented musician and music professor who lives in a beautiful house by a lake. But even as her husband surprises her with a birthday party, she senses depression creeping in.
As her despair becomes entrenched, she is unable to focus on her career or her family and her husband discovers that she has been hit by depression before - to such a deep extent that she lost her first husband and almost succeeded in killing herself.
Even though David (Visnjic) is determined to stand by her, he is hurt and baffled by her behaviour, especially as she increasingly rejects him and seeks solace with another suicidally-depressed woman called Mathilda (Smith) who is one of her students.
The suffering doesn’t let up from the start to the finish, as Helen tries suicide, Mathilda becomes more unstable and David and her daughter Julia (Fast) try to cope.
Nettelbeck doesn’t give the audience much respite from the descent into hell nor does she offer much redemption, even though Helen does eventually appear to emerge from the haze of her malady.
While no doubt her portrait is accurate (right down to the contemporary use of ECT), it makes for a punishing viewing experience.
Judd - a superb actress whose best work has always been in her independent endeavours - spends much of the film in tears or in a rage, and her performance is to be admired. But while it’s easy for the audience to feel the pain of Helen’s husband, the film is ultimately never able to express what she herself is actually going through.
Egoli Tossell Film
Insight Film Studios
The Little Film Company
Linda Del Rosario
Lauren Lee Smith