Mental Illness Is a Bummer in Helen


“Your wife isn’t unhappy—your wife is ill,” a doctor explains to David (Goran Visnjic) early on in Helen, thus ensuring that the viewer isn’t tempted to read the mental breakdown of the titular character (Ashley Judd) as disillusionment with her upper-crust lifestyle. Mental illness as social commentary has proved a fruitful, if well-worn, cinematic strategy, but that’s not what writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck is after. In her treatment of suicidal depression, the condition has no external cause, which may be more medically accurate, but at least here it’s far less interesting. Judd is given free reign to go hysterical—screaming, holding a knife to her chest—while the world treats her with dull-minded non-comprehension. No one seems to understand—not her husband, not her employer, certainly not the doctors who are quick to prescribe electroshock. Only fellow sufferer Mathilda can relate. In what’s surely a terrible idea, Helen moves in with that woman, forcing two people who can’t take care of themselves to look out for each other and turning what has already been an excessively somber movie into an excruciating wallow.