E1 Entertainment // 2009 // 119 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 10th, 2010
Sanity comes when you least expect it.
I work at a radio station. We're required to run a certain number of public service announcements each day on the station, most of which come from the Ad Council, various government agencies, etc. One of the PSAs we're currently running spotlights the subject of depression. A narrator with a kind yet stern voice informs us than when a friend says, "I'm depressed," one should not respond by saying, "Hey, try to cheer up, you'll get over it," but rather attempt to provide understanding by accepting that depression is a form of mental illness and offering your support. I think we can all agree this is a good thing to keep in mind. Sandra Nettlebeck's Helen essentially offers the same message, but unfortunately doesn't manage to say much more in its 119-minute running time than that PSA does in 30 seconds.
The title character is played by Ashley Judd (Kiss the Girls), who initially presents Helen as the happiest woman in the world. The film opens on Helen's birthday celebration. She laughs, she smiles at her daughter Julie (Alexia Fast, Tin Man), she dances with her husband David (Goran Visnjic, Elektra), and she seems to be in high spirits. Later, Helen's behavior starts to change. She excuses herself from a dinner party early, she can't seem to concentrate when teaching music theory to her large class of college students, and she starts crying at unexpected times. This behavior eventually leads David to take Helen to the hospital, where she is diagnosed with clinical depression.
What happens from here? The back of the DVD case helpfully informs us: "Crippled by depression, Helen befriends Mathilda (Lauren Lee Smith, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), a kindred spirit struggling with bipolar disorder. Together the two find the solace they had been seeking." Ordinarily, I might be a little frustrated that the packaging of a film offers such an explicit spoiler (the above tagline does too, for that matter), but it's not really a problem in this case. Helen is such a predictable film; there's never any doubt that the whole thing is going to conclude on a positive note. The film certainly does a good job of educating the viewer on the effects of depression, but that's precisely where the problem lies: it feels like the screenplay's intentions are more about educating viewers than providing them with a satisfying cinematic experience.
The film's saving grace is Ashley Judd, one of the most fearlessly committed actresses of her generation. Sure, she's appeared in a lot of mediocre popcorn thrillers over the last 15 years or so, but consider her blazing supporting role in Smoke or her intense portrait of a psychological meltdown in William Friedkin's Bug. When Judd finds a challenging role she gives it absolutely everything she's got, and that's the case once again in Helen. A blurb on the case suggests that the performance is awards-worthy; I wouldn't dispute that claim for a second. There's genuine truth and frightening familiarity in her raw performance. Unfortunately, this great piece of acting is trapped inside a film that's too often bland, conventional and boring.
Little else in the film manages to make a strong impression. Goran Visnjic is reduced to being The Average Person Dealing with Someone Else's Depression, veering from compassion to frustration to sadness as needed. He feels more like a piece of clay designed to show us alternate reactions to Helen's situation than a genuine character. As the film progresses, the attention shifts increasingly to the relationship between Helen and Mathilda, which is sweet if banal. Mathilda is able to relate to Helen on many levels; meaning that Mathilda knows how Helen wants to be treated. Despite some third-act theatrics that bring a bit more life to the proceedings, the relationship never attains the depth it needs.
The DVD transfer gets the job done nicely, as the film's latter half offers up some rather lovely imagery as Mathilda and Helen spend some time at a beach house. Detail is strong throughout and darker scenes are mostly impressive in terms of clarity. There is a bit of black crush at times, though. Flesh tones also seem a bit on the pale side at times. Audio is solid, with gently understated sound design blending with a soundtrack dominated by comforting easy-listening tunes. Supplements are limited to a batch of interviews with Judd, Visnjic, Fast and Smith.
Ashley Judd earns a pardon with her remarkable performance, but the remainder
of the film is guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R