Grim, unfocused and depressing without much fluid movement and alarmingly lacking in any kind of necessary insight on the subject of mental illness, Helen is a drab waste of time-and at two hours, plenty of it. Filmed in Vancouver by German writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck, it is the plodding portrait of a successful, talented college music professor named Helen (Ashley Judd), married to a handsome, adoring lawyer named David (E.R.‘s Goran Visnjic) and mother of a loving teenage daughter from a previous marriage named Julie (British Columbia favorite Alexia Fast). To the outside world, Helen has everything. But she is miserable. She can’t sleep. She’s so freaked out that she walks out of her classes in a daze, incapable of teaching. Unable to eat, accomplish the simplest chore, play the piano or even breathe, she suddenly, out of nowhere and with no physical cause, suffers a complete nervous collapse. Helen is bonkers, and this seemingly interminable movie follows her from screaming fits to electro-shock treatments, every wretched inch of the way. By the end, she’s not the only one screaming.
Helen is bonkers, and this seemingly interminable movie follows her from screaming fits to electro-shock treatments, every wretched inch of the way. By the end, she’s not the only one screaming.
Committed to a psycho ward where prescribed anti-depressants have no effect, Helen, for some inexplicable reason, pulls away from her husband and friends and finds a lesbian love interest in one of her students-a schizophrenic named Mathilda (CSI‘s Lauren Lee Smith) who is on her second suicide attempt. Neither of these self-destructive wackos can connect with other people, so it is unlikely that any psychiatrist would encourage them to move in together. Especially when their mutual love of music takes second place to their mutual love of each other, resulting in a lot of sleeping all day and banging their heads bloody against walls and glass windows. Between kissing and curling up in fetal positions in a filthy hovel littered with rotting food and dirt, they play games like “The Top Five Worst Pieces of Advice From People Who Don’t Know What They’re Talking About”; “Top Five Ways to Commit Suicide”; and “Top Five Reasons to Live Anyway”.
In their emotional pain and hopeless loss of reason, they find a common ground that becomes the only beacon of salvation in Helen’s darkening hell. The saddest thing about the movie is the cruelty and punishment her loyal, confused husband and daughter are subjected to while she attempts to “find” herself. Personally, I was more anxious to find the exit doors.
There isn’t one minute in this draggy movie that comes close to the compassion and poignancy of The Snake Pit, Anatole Litvak’s groundbreaking 1948 film about the tragedy of mental breakdowns and the painstakingly slow recovery process. It’s not convincing that the state would ignore the warnings of a patient’s doctors and release her against their advice. Nor do I believe a woman committed to a psycho ward would be allowed unsupervised visits from another dangerous patient. The director makes no effort to elucidate. Poor Ashley Judd does a credible job of showing what it’s like to go slowly mad-docile, disconnected, without reason or self-control. But zombies are not really very interesting. They don’t act, they react. It’s really the intriguing Goran Visnjic as the charismatic, slowly unraveling husband who merits attention. Extraordinarily sensitive and gifted, he should have become a major star after his unforgettable role opposite Tilda Swinton in The Deep End. Who can explain these things?
In the end, Helen may never be healthy or normal again, but her nightmare in limbo ends when she decides she cannot hide from herself forever. This convenient and medically questionable resolution is an insult. Two hours of manic-depressiveness is more than an agonized audience deserves-and there’s never enough real psychoanalysis in the movie to bring us any closer to Helen’s real problems. Eventually, you can’t help but lose interest in her-and in the movie, too.
Running time 120 minutes
Written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck
Starring Ashley Judd, Goran Visnjic, Alexia Fast
1 Eyeball out of 4