Helen (2008)

Helen first published by Little White Lies

“It’s not so easy to go back, I think”.

So says Maria (Maria Vishnjakova), a young Estonian who, since arriving in Britain, has seen in her isolation “a chance to start over again… to reinvent myself”. Accordingly she has changed her tastes, her language and even her name – and is now pregnant with possibilities in her “new home”. Working as a hotel maid alongside Maria is Helen (Annie Townsend), who, about to turn 18 and become an adult, faces an unknown life outside of the care system that has been her home since early childhood. Helen is alienated, guarded, ambitionless, and largely unnoticed – but when she passes an audition to play missing fellow student Joy in a police reconstruction of the girl’s last known movements, Helen too sees an opportunity to become someone she had never before dreamed of being – someone happy, secure and loved. And so begins her own uneasy journey back.

The feature debut of writing/directing team Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor is a tale of two lost girls, and two searches – but where a more mainstream production would have focused on the criminal angle, Helen pushes police procedural to the wings, preferring to let the more conventionally marginal figure of Helen take centre stage. By sporting Joy’s clothes and hairstyle, by spending time with Joy’s distraught parents (Sandie Malia, Dennis Jobling), by making overtures to Joy’s older boyfriend (Danny Groenland), and by even passing off a family photo of Joy as her own, Helen is in fact discovering both who she is and who she has the potential to become – and so, while strictly speaking no missing-person case is solved, certainly Helen is allowed to find herself. 

Whether DP Ole Birkeland’s 35mm lens is still or in motion, it always captures the film’s world with a sedate aloofness that reflects the protagonist’s inner psyche, while offering a series of perfectly composed wide shots with a beauty all their own. The sound design too – amplified ambient noise combined with Dennis McNulty’s shimmering synthscapes – evokes an intensified reality that has little to do with naturalism. Here, as though in reconstruction of Helen’s own measured detachment, everything looks calm, everyone speaks in hushed tones, and the chaos and trauma of everyday life always remain hidden beneath a surface reserve.

Such cool stylisation makes Helen unequivocally and unapologetically a product of the arthouse – a sensibility that until recently has been largely missing from British cinema. Here less really is more – and first-timer Townsend’s studiously impassive performance as Helen invites viewers to fill in the blanks with their own emotions, leading to an ending that, for all its quietness, distils the confusion, anxiety and elation of what it is to metamorphose into a fully-formed individual.           

Anticipation: An audition for new British talent, or the real thing?

Enjoyment: Its beauty and sadness are simply overwhelming. 

In Retrospect: Anglo-Irish cinema gets a new, fully-formed identity.

strap: Christine Molloy & Joe Lawlor’s astonishing feature debut tracks a lost young woman looking to reconstruct a crime and herself

© Anton Bitel