You can’t really argue with their credentials – directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor have a solid background in art, drama and writing, forming a London-based production company Desperate Optimists, and moving into filmmaking through a series of short films and installation pieces with various community groups across the UK, with several of the films, known collectively as the Civic Life Series, going on to win international film awards. The style and content of those seven films feeds through into their first feature Helen, a film which has drawn comparisons to Antonioni and Angelopolous.
The problem with Helen however, is that the filmmakers have taken the same approach – presumably in order to safely acquire further community film funding – and have drawn their very thin short-film idea out to almost feature length, hoping that it achieves meaning through the community involvement and a very limited knowledge of filmmaking that associates, slow, minimalist tracking shots and inexpressiveness with profundity. It’s an arty approach we’ve seen recently in another “worthy” dressed-up but equally empty British-funded film (i.e. one that’s not a cockney crime caper or a crude comedy), Better Things. There’s no inherent reason however why in the hands of a genuine filmmaker, there’s not enough material here to really engage with issues that affect the communities and the youth depicted here.
Questions of identity, alienation and deprivation are indeed all raised in the character of Helen (Annie Townsend) – an ordinary girl, an average student, unexceptional in every respect and unimaginative in her outlook, but then she has never had any reason to think her life could be any better than it is. Turning 18, living in a care home, working shifts in a hotel while trying to get through college, Helen has no past to look back on and no future to look towards. When a girl at school called Joy goes missing one day, simply disappearing into the woods by the park, leaving items of her clothing and her yellow jacket behind her, Helen is asked to take part of Joy in a police reconstruction of the girl’s last movements. Getting to know Joy’s parents, speaking to her boyfriend, Helen is able to experience for the first time a life she never had – parents, a boyfriend, guidance, attention.
This is an interesting idea – will Helen feel the dangerous attraction of slipping into another person’s life, gaining an identity she never had for herself? Will that just restrict her to following a life that has already been defined or will it perhaps give her the impetus to discover who she is herself? One thing is for sure, Helen has no intention of being a murder-mystery or revealing what happened to Joy, whether she was abducted or ran-away, and no intention of examining the social factors that may have led to her disappearance. It’s not a thriller, it’s not a film to raise social issues and it’s not character study either – Helen, by definition of her identity problem, has no character and no background, or at least none that is revealed until very briefly and inconsequentially at the very end of the film. She’s inexpressive of any ‘blue sky’ desires or ambitions. We know what the film is not then, so what exactly is Helen?
It’s a series of long, tracking shots, slow motion walks through woods, viewing Helen (as on the cover) from a behind-the-shoulder viewpoint to emphasise her lack of identity and significance, looking at the sky through tree branches, picking out objects on the ground. It’s long, slow, methodical dialogue, unconvincingly scripted and delivered by non-professional actors of diverse regional accents in a long, slow methodical manner devoid of expression, the filmmakers ensuring that all those involved get their spot or cameo appearance. It works hard on creating a mood, finding a space for the story to exist and spread out, but in reality the opposite occurs. It feels restricted, closed-down, too carefully laid-out, mired in stylistic tics, reconstructed, a step-by-step walk through. Whether this meaningfully suggests the direction of Helen’s life being predefined or following in the steps of another, or whether it suggests the filmmakers are doing the same and hanging onto the coat-tails of Antonioni with no sense of new ideas or individual expression of their own is therefore debatable, but personally I’m unconvinced that they have anything of meaning or value to bring to the cinematic medium
Helen is released in the UK by New Wave Films. The DVD is in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
Like all New Wave Films releases, I get variable results in the picture quality depending on the equipment used. Upscaled to 1080p through my Blu-ray player the image looks fantastic on an LCD display, the colouration bold and bright, exhibiting fine detail with no significant marks or flaws. Moreover, the image – consisting as I’ve noted of long slow tracking shots – is stable and smooth, flowing beautifully with no wavering or flicker. Taking screenshots for the review however, the macroblocking artefacts were clearly visible, the image pulsating into blockiness. I’d prefer to trust the near-perfect image viewed on my main player to an aged computer video-card, but mention the issue here since it could be a problem that is display dependent.
The film has Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, both of which present a cool soundscape that conveys the tediously repetitive electronic score effectively and the dialogue cleanly. Ambience is important, and evidently the 5.1 track is the better choice, creating an enveloping environment without too much obvious directional activity.
There are no subtitles provided and no hard-of-hearing options.
Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor talk a bit about their background in the Interview with the Filmmakers (25:46), their involvement in various art, drama and community projects, their move into cinema and the Civic Life Series, showing some clips of those short films (all very much in the same style as Helen). They talk about their approach to their first feature, casting, the acting and the photographic aspects, acknowledging the Antonioni connection.
A short film Joy (9:35) was shot at the same time as Helen and, consisting of an alternative longer fuller take of the opening shot, is obviously closely connected to the main feature. It’s based on the reconstruction of Joy’s disappearance, but highly stylised, with a contemplative narration and, inevitably, a long, slow, almost single-take pan of the camera with a monotonous electronica score.
The Trailer (1:00) for Helen is also included.
Helen has received high praise from mainly British critics desperate to find and support some important and meaningful national art cinema, but it’s hard to see any real substance beyond the surface trappings of Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor’s rather limited and repetitive arthouse stylisations. Comparisons to Antonioni and Angelopolous are, frankly, laughable. There’s no script or idea here worthy of a feature film and no evidence of the creators having any originality or distinctiveness in their approach, the results seeming to be filmmaking just for the sake of it and because there’s funding for it if you tick all the right boxes. New Wave Films however present the film well, with good supplemental features that show where the filmmakers are coming from.