Directors: Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy
The UK, the present day. A group of friends walk in the park. One, Joy, breaks from the group, passing a number of people before entering the woods. Cut to police investigating the scene of a crime. Joy’s parents visit the police station to identify the items found at the scene. A televised reconstruction is planned to jog the public’s memories. P.C. Saville visits Joy’s school to request any assistance. Helen, a girl in Joy’s class, auditions for the reconstruction and is asked whether she would act as Joy. Helen lives in a care home and works as a hotel chambermaid, befriended only by her Estonian colleague.
Helen runs through Joy’s final known steps, mentored by P.C. Saville. Helen meets Joy’s parents, who recognise the visual resemblance between Helen and their daughter, and they offer to help Helen in any way they can. Helen meets Joy’s boyfriend, Danny, an estate agent. Now 18, Helen refuses access to her personal files. Whilst visiting Joy’s parents, she takes a photograph of Joy as a child with her parents, which she later shows to Danny. Helen asks Danny to tell her he loves her so she knows how it feels. At dinner with Joy’s parents, Joy’s father breaks down. Helen finally requests access to her personal files.
An intriguing but ultimately imperfect film about reinvention and assuming a fresh identity, the origins of ‘Helen’, made by the production company, Desperate Optimists (formed by the two directors), were the short ‘Joy’ (also 2008). Only nine minutes in length, the bare bones of the premise remain intact, which has been fleshed out in greater detail for this full length version. Changing the title from the name of one protagonist to another is crucial, however, completely shifting the emphasis of the film. For the short, the stress was upon Joy, the missing girl. Here, it’s upon Helen, the young girl, who is asked to impersonate Joy for a police reconstruction.
The major strength of the film is how it examines the consequences of asking one person to impersonate the other. For Joy’s family, who take on Helen almost as a surrogate daughter, it’s a means of suspending their grief, to make themselves believe that nothing has changed and that their daughter is still with them. The early scene where Joy’s mother smells Joy’s yellow jacket is cut back to later when Joy’s mother embraces Helen. Both scenes serve the same purpose, to recall memories of their missing daughter. When Helen visits Joy’s parents for dinner, the scene plays out how dinner genuinely would have occurred at the home, although the careful façade is cracked when Joy’s father breaks down in tears, in full acknowledgement that however he and his wife make themselves believe Helen is Joy, it just won’t work.
Impersonating Joy provides Helen with opportunities she’s herself never enjoyed. Living in care homes for as long as she can remember and working part-time as a hotel chambermaid, this quiet, unambitious, struggling young girl is the complete antithesis of Joy, who by all accounts was outgoing, popular and academically successful. Helen has the chance to step into Joy’s shoes, to live her life and to escape her own. The advantages of which are none too subtly pointed out when an Estonian colleague explains why she moved to the UK, “to start over again, reinvent myself”. Helen absorbs aspects of Joy’s personality and life; her resemblance moves beyond just wearing her luminous yellow jacket. She even strikes up a tentative relationship with Joy’s ex-boyfriend, Danny. When Danny tells Helen he loves her, why does he do this? Is it because Helen wants to know what those words feel like or did Danny indeed love Joy, despite his uncertainty when asked about it previously. Perhaps still, he senses something between himself and Joy. One possibility never explored, perhaps because Joy’s disappearance is ultimately a MacGuffin, is what would happen if Joy was found alive and well? What would become of Helen then? This is a plot development too far for the directors, but within the framework of the narrative, they ask a number of salient questions about the nature of identity.
The main shortcomings identified with the film already in previous reviews are a curious approach to acting and dialogue. Much like with the casting process for the reconstruction, the directors sought non-professional locals to participate in their film and take the parts of the main protagonists. The cast, on the whole, are fine. Annie Townsend creates a quiet, blank canvass for Helen, so that she’s ready to step into Joy’s shoes. Yet the acting on the whole is oddly stilted, delivered without feeling, almost deliberately detached, as if this was the effect that the directors wanted. What this doesn’t necessarily explain though is the shocking dialogue that these characters are expected to converse with.
Presumably the screenplay for ‘Helen’ is completely improvised – characters were informed what ought to happen in a scene and then they’d invent the dialogue, which for non-professionals might not be that simple. If that’s the case, then it certainly shows because some of the dialogue is exceptionally wretched, existing purely because the directors think that it ought to. Take one scene when Helen visits Joy’s parents for dinner, and Joy’s father helps her with her maths homework for explaining an incredibly complicated algebraic equation. How convenient! That’s just one instance of how false the dialogue feels, but again, perhaps that’s what the directors are looking for, but it doesn’t convince. Given that ‘Helen’ is a slow-burning, meandering film whose strengths lie in its ability to create a vivid mood and atmosphere, dialogue could have been kept to its bare essentials.
The influence of Antonioni hangs prominently over the film. The mystery in the park, never resolved, reminds one of ‘Blow Up’ and the extended evening shot of a lonely skyline looks as though it might have been lifted from the devastating final sequence of ‘L’Eclisse’. The general detachment of the characters and their inability to meaningfully communicate with each other is pure Antonioni. The directors provide numerous visual flourishes, from the opening slow-motion sequence that hints at something about to go wrong to the long shot of Helen retracing Joy’s steps before closing with a direct overhead shot. There’s plenty Lawlor and Molloy impress with, yet the entire credibility of their film is almost sunk by acting and dialogue that feels amateurish and might alienate an audience. ‘Helen’ hints at better things for the directors, but the overall effect, is a beautiful, if rather confusing mess.