A PSA masquerading as an actual drama, Helen takes great pains to depict severe depression as not an emotional condition, but an illness, yet somewhere along the way forgets to articulate said thesis in a compelling way. The English-language debut of Sandra Nettelbeck is a monumentally torpid affair, a sort-of hybrid of Bug and When a Man Loves a Woman whose admirable qualities are overpowered by consuming stasis. One can almost smell the stale air hanging in between every word shared by Helen (Ashley Judd), a classical pianist and teacher wracked with debilitating suicidal depression, and her alienated second husband David (Goran Visnjic) and teenage daughter Julie (Alexia Fast). Nettelbeck’s camera moves with a deliberateness that exudes empathy for Helen’s plight. Unfortunately, while Helen’s condition leads to sudden, uncontrollable outbursts of misery, Nettelbeck’s film exhibits its own unwanted lack of restraint, indulging in so many drawn-out sequences of its protagonist bursting into tears (in a restaurant bathroom, in a university bathroom, while doing laundry, in her bedroom, in a hospital bed, etc.) that the proceedings grind to a standstill.
As Helen enters and exits medical facilities, coldly shuns David and Julie, and then shacks up in a dilapidated apartment with a former student named Mathilda (Lauren Lee Smith) who’s a kindred unstable spirit (when in fits of rage, she prefers smashing her hands through, and head into, panes of glass), Helen captures a piercing sense of losing one’s self and one’s loved one to unruly psychosis. Yet without a guiding narrative to provide even a smidgen of momentum, and with a visual schema that’s simply drab and unimaginative when it’s not also being pretentious (as with its bevy of pans past and around an anguished Judd), the material’s portrait of psychological suffering goes formless. Moreover, despite its sympathy for Helen and well-intentioned desire to present depression as a malady rather than merely a feeling, Nettelbeck’s concentrated gaze is so rigorous and yet detached that it has the unintentional effect of keeping one outside of Helen’s incomprehensibly tormented mind, thereby leaving Judd’s fierce embodiment of disconnection and desolation to play out in a void of remote, mind-numbing inaction.