A brave, affecting turn by Ashley Judd cuts through the overall torpor of “Helen,” a somber, elegant psychological case study that will leave auds feeling as gloomy and enervated as the title character. While this first English-language feature by German writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck (“Mostly Martha”) admirably avoids soft-pedaling the unique enigmas and agonies of clinical depression, it can’t overcome its own self-imposed limitations — namely, catatonic pacing and a dramatically narrow outsider’s view of mental illness. The pic has its merits as an educational tool but is much too bleak to connect with a larger audience.
First introduced tickling the ivories at her birthday party, Helen Leonard (Judd) seems to be the very picture of happiness: She’s a successful music professor and lives in domestic bliss with her handsome attorney husband David (Goran Visnjic) and teenager Julie (Alexia Fast), her daughter from a previous marriage.
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But without warning, Helen gradually starts to go out of tune — sleeping late into the afternoon, hyperventilating in private and even abandoning her husband at a restaurant one evening. When David later finds her unconscious at home, he takes her first to the hospital, then to the psych ward — only to learn that this is not his beloved wife’s first bout with severe depression.
Questions and answers are doled out with maddening deliberateness, but Judd’s sensitive rendering of Helen’s relapse makes for initially hypnotic viewing. Looking careworn, ravaged and deeply anguished throughout, Judd (who has spoken out about her own experiences with depression) manifests Helen’s spiritual and emotional suffering as an almost physical state, one that’s almost as unbearable for the audience as it is for the character.
Even still, Nettelbeck never really gets inside Helen’s head, which seems intentional on her part — an acknowledgment that only the sufferer can or should know the experience. And she scrupulously observes the devastating emotional consequences for David and Julie, sensitively played by Visnjic and Fast, respectively. The underexposed Canadian actress Alberta Watson makes the most of her brief screen time as Helen’s doctor.
But well before the end of its 121 minutes, “Helen” has drifted into well-meaning tedium, mainly due to a subplot involving one of Helen’s students, the deeply unstable Mathilda (Lauren Lee Smith), whom Helen comes to see as her sole source of comfort. Pic means to hold up these characters as distorted mirror images, but Mathilda’s violent, near-suicidal rampages play like outtakes from a schlockier psychodrama than this one.
Michael Bertl’s widescreen lensing, moving from the expressively dark interiors of Helen’s home to the overly bright whites of the mental hospital, adds to the film’s otherworldly vibe. The moody, evocative piano- and cello-based score was composed by Tim Despic and supervised and produced by James Edward Barker, with featured music by David Darling.