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Ashley Judd and Goran Visnjic star in HELEN, an Alliance Films release.
Ashley Judd and Goran Visnjic star in HELEN, an Alliance Films release.

A meditation on mental illness, but where's the story? Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English


  • Written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck
  • Starring Ashley Judd, Goran Visnjic, Lauren Lee Smith, Alexia Fast and Alberta Watson
  • Classification: 14A

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 per cent of Canadians experience mental illness. Suicide accounts for 24 per cent of all deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds and 16 per cent among 16- to 44-year-olds. So it is surely a good thing that case study investigations of mental illness such as Helen are out there, available for individuals and families to contemplate and learn from.

German filmmaker Sandra Nettelbeck's first English-language film is stocked with thoughtful discussion cues. The first scene has Helen (Ashley Judd), a beautiful music teacher, playing piano for family and friends at her birthday party. Her handsome lawyer husband, David (Goran Visnjic), looks on, beaming. Teenage daughter, Julie (Alexia Fast) swells with pride. Their home is lovely. Everything, perfect.

But when alone, Helen's life is a cluster of wrong notes. She collapses in her kitchen, making herself tiny, crying. Leaves restaurant gatherings without notice. Falls silent in front of a class. David takes her to the hospital, believing she is suffering some physical trauma. The doctor recommends she see a clinical psychologist.

What? "Helen is a happy, successful woman," David protests. "She likes her job. She loves her daughter."

"Your wife is not unhappy, Mr. Leonard," the doctor replies. "She is ill."

The scene (and film) does a good job shattering the public perception that mental illness is the manifestation of a sad or wounded life. And Helen is graced with careful, understated performances. Judd, who has been public about her own periodic bouts of depression, offers a properly restrained, sympathetic portrait of a woman, interrupted. Lauren Lee Smith ( CSI) is also intriguing as Mathilda, one of her music students, a younger woman trying to hide from mental illness.

That said, watching Helen too often feels like you are sitting in a hospital waiting room instead of a theatre. The film is agonizingly slow. And there is no storyline to enliven Helen's troubles. Her relationship with her husband, daughter and doctor (Alberta Watson) are of little dramatic consequence. Helen's troubles are the storyline.

Nettelbeck's work does, however, take advantage of its music subtext. In another of the film's thoughtful, quietly provocative scenes, Helen advises Mathilda how she might play better, taking advantage of her talent. Although it's clear that she is advising her on how to deal with the challenge of her illness as well.

"Hold on to time," Helen says.

"What do you mean?" Mathilda responds.

"Suspension," her teacher replies, smiling. "Silence. That's where you'll find what you're looking for. In the distance between things."

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