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Review: Helen

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A quest for love and identity


- A subtle, melancholy and elegiac debut feature, exploring the nature of identity, solitude and above all the quest for love in all its forms

Review: Helen

Writers, producers and directors Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy met in 1983, got married in 1986 and have been engaged in community theatre, experimental performance, online projects and several short films over the last 20 years. As Lawlor says, “We’ve been involved in different forms but the main concerns have always been there – narrative, performance and form in a way, how things are not just what they are.” Inevitably, their journey has culminated in a stunning debut feature – Helen [+see also:
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On the face of it, Helen is about the disappearance of a teenage girl Joy, and in the ensuing police reconstruction of the event, Joy’s classmate Helen being chosen as a stand-in for the missing girl. However, Helenis much more than what the barebones plot outline makes it out to be. The film is a haunting, melancholic, elegiac and deeply thought-provoking look at the nature of identity, wells of loneliness and above all, a quest for love in all its forms.

As played with subtlety by first timer Annie Townsend, Helen is an anodyne small-city teenager, self-admittedly not very good at academics and fairly nondescript – the kind of wallpaper teen that makes up the real population of schools and universities while their more outgoing and glamorous compatriots, such as the disappeared Joy, hog the limelight. It is when Helen, because of a slight physical resemblance to Joy, is picked to help the police that we learn more about this seemingly insignificant girl.

Helen works as a chambermaid in a posh hotel (where her East European co-worker has identity issues of her own) and has lived most of her life in a care home, but we don’t learn much else as Helen abruptly cuts short a revealing exploration of her rather meagre case file by a care worker. The chance to participate in the police procedure revitalises Helen, and she is, overtly and subconsciously, subsumed into the identity of the altogether more normal Joy. It is here that Helen’s desire for love (romantic and parental) and just plain normalcy come to the fore.

In their classically formal filmmaking (long takes, minimal monotone music, Ole Birkeland’s luminous 35mm cinematography), the directors keep overt displays of emotion to a minimum, perhaps reflecting the emotional suppression the British Isles are known for. Townsend’s Helen is deliberately bland as is Sandie Malia, playing Mrs Thompson – Joy’s mother. Dennis Jobling, as Mr Thompson, is allowed a quick cry followed by a speedy return to supposed normalcy as the Thompsons share an awkward dinner at home with an at-ease Helen.

The directors have acknowledged a debt to Carl Dreyer’s minimalist cinema, but the film also has shades of Robert Altman’s 3 Women in its identity assumption theme. It also owes a debt to Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura in the sense that while the film begins with the disappearance of a radiant woman, in reality, the film’s concerns are about the people involved in the search for her and their thirst for love.

Helen’s companion short film Joy hypothesises about what could possibly have happened to the disappeared girl. It won the Prix UIP at the 37th Rotterdam International Film Festival. Helen itself won Best Actress for Annie Townsend and the Grand Jury Prize for Molloy and Lawlor at the Angers European First Film Festival.

Helen’s commissioning partners are: NewcastleGateshead Initiative via Culture10 - its regional events and festivals programme; Tyneside Cinema; Birmingham City Council; Dublin Docklands Development Authority; the Liverpool Culture Company; Arts Council England; and completion monies from the Irish Film Board. Visit Films are handling sales.


international title: Helen
original title: Helen
country: Ireland
sales agent: Visit Films (USA)
year: 2008
directed by: Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor
screenplay: Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor
cast: Annie Townsend, Sandie Malia, Dennis Jobling, Sonia Saville, Danny Groenland

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