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Film Review: Helen

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
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PARK CITY -- For anyone who enjoys watching severe depression and madness on screen, "Helen" is just what the psychiatrist ordered. Everyone else may find it a bit implausible. Ashley Judd's powerful performance as a woman losing her mind can't make up for methodical pace and flawed storytelling. The film seems more destined for select cable outlets than a theatrical release.

One of the hardest things to show on film is the inner workings of mental illness. The outer trappings -- the outbursts and outrageous behavior -- make for good drama, but when it comes to looking inside a person's head, it's not so simple. Written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck, "Helen" does a good job portraying depression but a poor job portraying treatment.

Helen (Judd) is a seemingly well-adjusted woman with a successful career as a music theory professor. She lives happily with her husband, David (Goran Visnjic), and 12-year-old daughter, Julie (Alexia Fast), from her first marriage. But irritability and late-night anxiety attacks suggest cracks in her psyche that gradually open to a giant chasm.

Her family is powerless to help, and the audience is pretty much in the same position; no one can understand what she's going through. The only person she trusts is her suicidal student Mathilda (Lauren Lee Smith), someone as disturbed as she is. Unfortunately, Mathilda is a preposterous character who turns up inexplicably at such odd times throughout the film that she seems almost like figment of Helen's imagination.

For much of the film, Helen is in a state of denial, and after a brief stay in an institution tries to resume her normal life. It doesn't work, and as she becomes increasingly suicidal, the push and pull with her husband becomes more extreme. He soon realizes that Helen is mentally ill and no amount of love can bring her back. While it is easy to feel sympathy for David and Julie and their broken home, Helen is another story. As real as her suffering may be, she is not terribly likable as she wreaks havoc in her path.

It's clear that resisting treatment and not taking her meds are part of Helen's disease. But her downward spiral is painful to watch. When she does finally get help, it seems rather extreme: Surely medicine has progressed beyond shock treatments.

Despite Judd's finely calibrated performance, the film lacks a certain reality, reinforced by a fairy tale ending on the beach. Production design by Linda del Rosario, especially the couple's streamlined house, and crisp, autumnal photography by Michael Bertl give the film an appropriate lived-in look. If only the telling of the tale had sustained that.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Production companies: Egoli Tossell Film, Insight Film Studios, Aramid
Entertainment
Cast: Ashley Judd, Goran Visnjic, Lauren Lee Smith, Alexia Fast, Alberta
Watson, Leah Cairns, David Hewlett
Director: Sandra Nettelbeck
Writer: Sandra Nettelbeck
Producers: Judy Tossell, Christine Haebler
Executive producers: Kirk Shaw, Jens Meurer, Simon Fawcett, Chris Curling,
Robbie Little, Larry Sugar, Andrew Spaulding, Doug Mankoff
Director of cinematography: Michael Bertl
Music: Tim Despic
Production designer: Linda del Rosario
Costume designer: Bettina Helmi
Editor: Barry Egan
Sales: The Little Film Company
No rating, 119 minutes