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The girl who isn’t there

A pan-European production that makes a virtue of ambiguity

Helen (PG)
dirs: Christine Malloy, Joe Lawlor

When a film acquires funding from many different sources the result can sometimes be a hotchpotch. The most infamous examples are the “Euro-puddings” of the 1990s (The House of the Spirits, A Business Affair, Suite 16 et al), with their token bewildered A-list star, scripts translated into English via Norwegian, and picturesque footage of Differdange or Minsk.

The directors Christine Malloy and Joe Lawlor have used the financing structure behind their remarkable debut film, Helen, to the picture’s advantage. The budget came from various bodies in the UK and Ireland, including the Newcastle Gateshead Initiative, the Liverpool Culture Company and the Irish Film Board, and it’s never certain where the action is taking place. In a work that depends on ambiguity, this is unmistakably for the good.

When 18-year-old Joy is abducted in a park, the police appeal to her peers for a stand-in to participate in a TV reconstruction. The successful candidate is Helen (Annie Townsend), a timid waif from a care home. She is nearly 18 – the age at which her case file will be made available to her. When she enters the spotlight, her face is bleached white, as though she is being chosen for some purpose higher than Crimewatch.

In her own undemonstrative way, Helen brings to the role the commitment of a De Niro. She starts wearing a replica of the girl’s banana-yellow jacket wherever she goes. This produces a dynamic visual effect in the scenes at her local college, which appears to have been decorated by the White Stripes (heavy on the red, minimalism wherever you turn).

She befriends Joy’s boyfriend Danny (Danny Groenland), and is practically adopted by her parents, who have already taken down the family portrait. With Danny referring to Joy in the past tense, only Helen is actively keeping her memory alive, through one-way conversations that we hear in voice-over. Helen thinks she, not Joy, has the rawest deal. Joy may be missing but she still has something precious: a family and a home to come back to.

The film echoes L’avventura and The Vanishing in its fascination with the terrifying and seductive chasm left behind by a missing person. But who is it that’s really missing? If Joy is notionally the absent party, there’s a strong case to be made for Helen as the girl who isn’t there. We haven’t seen such an inchoate personality at the centre of a film since Todd Haynes’s Safe, in which a housewife (Julianne Moore) became both defined and steadily erased by the nameless illness she had contracted. In the same way, Helen grows more tangible as she becomes Joy while surrendering her autonomous identity.

The directors’ work with their amateur cast, whose line readings are almost uniformly awkward but sincere, is highly intriguing. In fairness, the actors are often called upon to deliver lines that no Rada-trained Oscar-winner could render convincingly. The police officer who visits Helen’s college gives a speech that is flat-out bizarre, and spoken unnaturally slowly. “There are some truly disgusting human beings,” she warns, “perpetrating acts of pure evil. But despite everything I’ve seen, I’m still convinced in the overwhelming goodness of people.” The reassuring glow of the second sentence fails utterly to cancel out the grisly relish of the first.

The clue to that scene, and the film, lies in the camera, which stays fixed on the blank-faced teenage audience. What the picture presents is life as an ongoing performance. Helen lands a role that transforms her, but she is not the only person playing a part. The college is mounting a production of Brigadoon (almost too fitting a choice). An Estonian friend explains how she remade herself, even changing her name, when she left her home country. Danny, an estate agent, tells Helen about the snazzy new flats he is selling. “If you buy into a complex like this, you’re buying into a lifestyle,” he enthuses, evoking a skyline of apartment blocks whose inhabitants have no firmer grasp on their sense of self than Helen does.

What gives the picture an extra dimension is its dislocated atmosphere. Dennis McNulty’s score is an unsettling electronic hum. And the cinematographer, Ole Bratt Birkeland, conjures images both tranquil and chilling, such as the numbered markers that turn Joy’s last movements into a kind of macabre dot-to-dot. Strutting up to inspect the crime scene is an inquisitive magpie. Just one, for sorrow.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Flu: Everything you need to know