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Sodebergh’s Side Effects and the mental health debate

Warning: This review contains some spoilers

I was curious about the release of Stephen Sodebergh’s new film, Side Effects, especially when I heard that there was a discussion of mental illness within the film. The cast put me off at first; Jude Law, Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum are certainly not my favourite actors, but I was willing to give this film a go as I expected it would soon be getting a lot of positive attention from the critics (much like Soderberg’s other films such as Magic Mike). The film is a very tight dynamic thriller for most of the duration, except the final act that is a little chaotic. The film is quite successful at provoking debates on issues of mental illness and medication and I will be discussing these for this blog.  

The film follows a young woman, Emily (Rooney Mara), as her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is being released from jail. Emily is seen struggling with symptoms of Depression and eventually drives her own car into a brick wall, in a suspected suicide attempt. At the hospital she meets the English Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). Jonathan is introduced to the film as he is brought into to talk to a man who has been brought to him by the police. The policeman thinks he is insane, but Jonathan soon finds out that he speaks French much better than English, and whilst conversing with him in French he also finds out that his father recently died and he saw his ghost. Jonathan explains that this man is just grieving and it is perfectly normal for a Haitian to see the ghost of their dead just after they have passed away. I enjoyed this short scene as it showed that people, who appear crazy to others, are in fact just in pain. With some patience you can understand where the person is coming from and there is an ability to move forward rather than the situation be aggravated by ignorance.

When Jonathan meets Emily, he is unsure whether or not to hospitalize her, but decides to let her remain as an out patient with her agreeing to come for therapy and to start taking an SSRI, Zoloft. She is seen suffering from side effects such as sickness, which is often seen with people who take Zoloft. Her boss, who is shown to be sympathetic to her depression, tells her that she had similar reaction to Zoloft and she had more luck with another type of anti – depressant. Jonathan finds out that Emily had seen another psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta – Jones) before him, who prescribed her Prozac. This discussion of anti – depressants here does give quite an accurate representation of what it is like for a person with Depression. It is quite frustrating as it can take a while to get the right fit in terms of medication, so they have to try several, with differing side effects, but those with these problems should have faith as there are many different types of medication out there so they will find the right fit for them eventually.

Victoria says to Jonathan that she recently started one of her patients on a new drug, Ablixa. She says that she does this because the patients see the adverts on the TV for the new drug and they believe in it as they see people getting better. I remember when I went to New York with a friend and one night we turned on the TV, I was so surprised that they advertised for medication. It unsettled me a bit, as if medication was just another product. This film seems to be critiquing this idea and the film could be onto something here, is there an unhealthy relationship that Americans have with medication?

Despite my agreement in the critique of advertizing for medication however, when it comes to mental illness my opinions differ here. As the mental illness being discussed throughout the majority of the film is Depression, I will focus with my issues here in relation to that. Depression makes you feel ashamed and like you are not worthy of recovery, so the idea the idea of advertising making you believe in something when you are dealing with the debilitating illness that takes away all hope is quite insulting. For people who suffer Depression, it is important that think they will not be viewed as someone who saw an advert on TV and want all their problems to be washed away by a miracle drug, but instead be safe with their emotions taken seriously and given full support. There are far too many people who are silent in their Depression due to many fears, one of them being that they will not be taken seriously. Even though I disagree with adverts for medication, as it could lead to people taking medication needlessly, I think that when it comes to critizing these adverts, one needs to be careful that your argument does also contain respect for the sufferers of the illness. Instead of suggesting that the brainless masses will watch these adverts for anti – depressants and rush out to get their hands on some, maybe instead the strongest argument against adverts for medication is that they are trivializing anti – depressants, also suggesting that Depression is a trivial illness, making it in line with cough medicine or headache relief. It could be what is so disturbing about these adverts is a combination of the idea of: a medication reliant country and the trivialisation of serious illnesses. Also it touches on the idea of a country obsessed with side effects.

One of the things I found amusing about the adverts for medication was that most of the advert is spent listing possible side effects of the medication. This obsession with side effects is usually to prevent court cases, and is an obsession that the film is trying to debate. The film uses the fact that there is a lot of anxiety around the side effects of medication and taps into this to make an unnerving thriller for anyone caught up in this anxiety.

Emily starts taking Ablixa, and starts feeling very good. The only side effect seems to be that she sleepwalks. Her husband is quite disturbed by her sleepwalking and this side effect worsens. Martin comes in one night and calls out to Emily. She does not reply, and he whispers under his breathe “Damn pills”. She is in the kitchen, cutting vegetables, but looks like a zombie. She then stabs him to death. Here is where the film starts to tap into the insecurities of many people watching. The film uses the fear of medication. Many fear medication for mental illness in particular. They fear it will mess with your mind and leave you far worse than you were before. This could well be seen as a fair point of discussion and a great way to start a debate about these issues. However, there is a worry that someone who already holds a strong view against medication could see this film, and despite the plot twist at the end, be much firmer in their beliefs in trying stopping someone with mental health issues from taking their medication. There are those who have been affected from their plans to see the doctor or take their medication by those around them who think that taking medication or getting help for mental illness will only result in them turning into a vegetable, addicted to “happy pills” or in a mental hospital. The term “happy pills” could not be more offensive, but it is surprising how much it is used. The medication used does not warp your mind; it helps the unbalance of chemicals that causes Depression. You will not end up in a mental hospital unless you are a serious threat to yourself and others. On top of this, medication is never the sole treatment available, it is advised that you also get therapy and come off the medication when the time is right, with supervision from a doctor. None of these reassuring factors are featured in the film, probably because they want to create suspense and reassurance will not fit in well to the genre.

Is the film brave then in touching on these issues? On the one hand the film is brave in touching a subject that can lead to strong reactions. On the other, the film does seem to be stating that this is for entertainment, lessoning the edge of the points they are making. They touch on the subject enough so that the issues are raised, but not so much that they can get into trouble for doing so. This is probably due to Sodebergh, whose previous films have also debated controversial topics including one of his earliest films Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989). So by now, Sodobergh knows how to raise debates on a subject without huge scandal. 

After Emily has killed her husband, there is a question of whether she is responsible or the medication. Jonathan is then called into questioning from the police. He is asked as to why he came to the USA to practice, instead of staying in the UK. He replies that he came from Durham and says: “Where I come from, if you’re seeing a therapist the assumption is that you’re sick. Here the assumption is you’re getting better.” As he delivers this line Jonathan looks quite smug, with the police also seeming happy at his response. What exactly is he implying here? That the UK is backwards compared to the USA in terms of therapy and dealing with mental illness? Although therapy is very popular in the USA, I do not think the UK are so backwards in their relationship to therapy. I think it was the idea of smug Americans nodding their head to that as if Durham was some backwards English village that annoyed me, whereas in fact Durham is a city home to one of the world’s top 100 universities. I think therapy is becoming more and more acceptable here in the UK, and accepted that when you go to a therapist, you are most likely to have an illness, but want to get better. Going to a therapist is therefore a step in the right direction, which takes strength and a desire to move forwards. Hopefully, this will be the view held by the majority of people in the near future.

Jonathan tells Emily that she is not at fault for what she is going through and that she is just “a victim of circumstance and biology”. Emily herself describes what she is going through similar to a “poisonous fog”. Both of these descriptions of Depression are accurate and yet they somehow seem to underestimate the pain person with Depression must go through and the strength it takes to try and overcome it. For instance one cannot imagine a doctor stating such a brash statement to a patient that they are just “a victim of circumstance and biology” to a diabetic for instance. It is far more complex than that. Even though it was a statement that he made to ease the guilt of his patient, which is a valid point as it is not the person’s fault that they are now suffering a period of Depression, despite blaming themselves to be one of the symptoms of this illness. On top of this the analogy to fog is one I hear often, but do not think this is sufficient as implies no strength from the patient when the fog eventually lifts, it is by miracle rather than by hard work from therapies such as CBT.

There is another interesting debate raised, which is how much is Jonathan to blame? Another psychiatrist that Jonathan asks for advice poses the question “Would you have treated her any differently had she been a man?” Suggesting that because she was an attractive young woman, Jonathan indulged her in her fantasies a bit too much. He did after all prescribe her a drug, for which he did not even know the possible side effects. Despite the film portraying him to show that he was doing his best for her at the time, and then after to find out what really happened, it is interesting to question the level of authority he is given with his patient and whether or not this is right to leave the psychiatrist with so much power and overall judgment over their patients. Despite this his crazed obsession in finding out the truth does prove to be worthwhile of his time, so he is not crazy but right. So the authority of the psychiatrist is not questioned to a very large extent.

The question he is so intent on proving is whether or not Emily is guilty of the murder of her husband. Was it the drug or was it in fact her all along? If you do not wish to know the answer of this question, skip the next paragraph.

When the question is answered, Emily turns out to be quite deceptive; it seems that Emily has had a different mental health issue all along. This twist unsettled me a bit. The difference between her being a person with Depression and being Schizophrenic in the film’s eyes is somewhat distorted. With Depression, she was at risk of killing herself. With Schizophrenia she was in danger of killing others. Not only this but to use her being schizophrenic as a final development of the film is sort of abusing her mental health problems for the benefit of a final dynamic twist. Is it ethical to use mental health problems in this way? In my opinion, no, yet psychological thrillers have used mental illness for a long time in order to make their thriller seemingly more complex and stimulating. Is this then a kind of mental health exploitation? Where mental illness is being used purely for suspenseful edgy entertainment, this could most likely be the case. However, this film is not purely insulting as it expects an intellectual and active viewer, to engage with the films debates and not to simply take what it presents to you. 

Overall, the film is gripping and well made. There are some good performances, from Jude Law, Catherine Zeta Jones and Rooney Mara. The cinematography is finely executed so that the film looks great as well. The debates raised in the film are not delivered with clear cut answers, which could be a way of avoiding controversy, but also gives the viewers a chance to engage in the debates raised and make up their own minds. Despite not being a fan of the way the film used mental illness in the final chapter of the film, in which it seemed that it could be just another edgy twist to the film and almost mental health exploitation, I did enjoy engaging in the debates the film raised. I would recommend watching it to make up your own mind as this is an intellectually made film that will have very differing opinions from viewers.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 1 April 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 28 February 2014

Silver Linings Playbook (2012) starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence

This is a funny and honest look into the lives of two people living with mental illness. 

The film opens as Pat (Bradley Cooper) is being checked out of Baltimore mental hospital by his mother. He moves back into his family home with his parents and tries to get back together with his ex – wife, Nikki (Brea Bee). As he moves back into his parents’ home he tries to adjust to the world around him as he faces ups and downs with his health and shows that peoples’ prejudices affect the way people behave around him.

Pat has bipolar disorder and he feels that he wants to be “clearer” so does not take his medication. This is suiting to someone who has episodes of hypomania or mania, where they perceive themselves to no longer need the help of medication, as they are now able to make everything in their life more positive. This is where his idea of a silver lining comes from; he wants to see the positive side of everything. There is a sort of beauty in that and Pat is a very contiguous and dynamic character. Though it is true to the symptoms of someone with bipolar to go through a period where they do not feel as though they need medication, it is also a great device to see Pat’s symptoms without and later with medication.

Though the film does not specify, it is clear that Pat has Bipolar type 1. His tendencies to have more episodes of mania and hypomania rather than Depression indicate this. The film is less concerned with that and more concerned about depicting the wide spectrum in which bipolar encompasses. For instance, the film shows how he believes in a conspiracy, which leads him to have a panic attack. In one scene, he becomes fixated with the idea of finding his wedding video. It is the middle of the night and he is in the attic, panicking as he is trying to find it. In his panic he accidentally hits his mother. After this scene, he realises that he needs his medication and goes back on it. This shows a sense of responsibility that the character has for his family and for himself. 

A fantastic scene in the film is when Pat is invited by his friends Ronnie (John Ortiz) and Veronica (Julia Stiles) to dinner. When Pat is at this dinner, it is clear that Veronica is making judgements about Pat because he has been in a mental hospital and is quite condescending towards him. She has invited her sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) to dinner. It is clear that Tiffany is also suffering from a mental illness. This scene shows up Veronica’s attitude and makes this character revaluate the way she sees mental illness, as her own sister is suffering from it as well, so she can longer be so judgemental towards those suffering from it. The scene also has a refreshingly honest debate from Pat and Tiffany about medication. They both joke about the negative side effects of the medication they have used in the past, and from this it might indicate that Tiffany has bipolar type 2 (she is more prone to periods of Depression and social anxiety with less periods of hypomania and no periods of mania).

 Both characters’ illnesses are treated with respect from the director, there is no sense of a condescending tone but rather one where the viewer really can see what it is like to have bipolar or to live with someone with it. The scene where Pat looks for the wedding video is an example of how the film allows the viewer to have this degree of empathy. As Pat is panicking, the camera is in extreme close up, allowing the viewer to share in his sense of claustrophobia; the camera is also shaking and moving in a dramatic fashion, also allowing the viewer to share in Pat’s accelerated heartbeat and sense of anxiety.

Another moment where you can see the reality of Pat’s illness is when the film shows people’s reactions to the fact he has been in the hospital. As well as at the dinner party with Veronica, it is shown when he attempts to go back to work at the school. As he sees a woman he knows, Nancy, he goes up to her to ask if he can come back to work. She reacts as though he is about to attack him, even though he is just asking simple questions and she even starts screaming as he goes to hug her. This shows how some people have such a horrible attitude to mental illness, but it also does a lot to dispel these attitudes by making these attitudes seem outlandish. It also helps dispel these attitudes to mental illness by showing the viewer the reality of the illness, so they know the reality rather than a sentimentalised or distorted view of mental illness.

Not only are those suffering from mental illness are depicted in a refreshing and understanding way but also Pat’s family and friends are as well. Pat’s father, Pat sr. (Robert De Niro) shows signs of OCD, as he has to carry out repetitive gestures every time he watches a football game. He tries to get Pat to watch the game, saying that he brings good luck. Pat sr. reveals to Pat later on that this was an attempt to connect with his son. He explained that he often blamed himself and worried that it was something he did to make Pat ill, but he realised it was about Pat not him. He told him that he loved him and accepted him. This scene was very touching and played brilliantly by Robert De Niro. There is such empathy in relation to bipolar in the film that is not surprising to me that the director, David O. Russell based Pat on his son, who also has bipolar. 

The film shows the lows involved with the illness, even with those on medication. Someone with Bipolar is a mental illness for life, so there will always be bad days. For Tiffany, her way of trying to make these bad days a little easier is to try and enter in this dance competition and she gets Pat involved, who is at first reluctant, but then starts really enjoying it. The collaboration, hard work and getting the best score the can is what matters. It is also the fun they have as they come together and achieve something, which shows them they can do things they aim for. Their silver linings are possible; it just takes a lot of hard work to get there.

Posted by Anonymous, 11 December 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 28 February 2014

Untouchable (2011) starring François Cluzet and Omar Sy

Released on 21 September, Untouchable is a French comedy-drama film directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano

This French film has received a lot of hype since its world premiere at the San Sebastian Festival on September 24 this year. Normally the films surrounding the hype are good, just not fantastic. This film however, seems to live up to the hype.

It takes a refreshing look at disability, following Philippe (François Cluzet), a quadriplegic and his growing friendship with his new care worker, Driss (Omar Sy). There is a scene where Philippe is holding interviews for the position of the care worker, that highlights brilliantly the small-minded prejudicial comments that disabled people have to hear all the time - off-handed and ignorant comments made by people who often do not even realise they are being offensive.

Comments such as the one made by one of candidates for the job as he says how important he thinks sports are to a person’s general well-being, implying that Philippe needs to take up sport. There is also a candidate who thinks he is some kind of martyr. When he is asked why he wants the job he answers that he loves disabled people. Applying for the job and claiming to know disabled people somehow makes him a distinguished do-gooder in his own mind.

There is also a lot of treading around egg shells by people not sure of what to say, how to act and apologising for comments that could be seen as offensive, which is handled well. Due to the fact Philippe has been surrounded by these types of people, he is struck by the general ease with which Driss behaves around Philippe and how Driss does not show pity; is not condescending, nor does he care that some of what he says could be offensive. Driss behaves around Philippe as he would any other person, which to Philippe is like a breath of fresh air.

The film is based around the developing friendship between Driss and Philippe. Driss is disabled in the socio-economic sense, as he has grown up in a deprived community, never having a break. He does not get the experience he needs to get a good job or any job.

Despite this however, Driss has a huge amount of charm, mostly thanks to Omar Sy’s cheeky smile, youthful energy and great delivery. The script is flawless and such a joy. There is also a great few moments where the film pokes a little fun at slightly pompous people, those who feel superior by watching something high brow, in effect it pokes fun at people who will have gone to see this movie for a 'cultural experience' rather than because of the subject, script, or acting.

This film shows real people and is sincere in its message that no matter how we look or what our circumstances are, we are all human beings and just want to laugh, cry, feel and have fun like everyone else.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 19 November 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 19 November 2012

Gabby's film blog gives an overview of disability at The Oscar ceremonies over the past decade or so

Image - Rain_Man.jpg

When reviewing 'A Beautiful Mind' I became just as irritated at the reception to the film as the film itself. It is annoying that film-makers consistently make lofty movies. However, they know that it will be a hit at the box office. Hollywood mainstream movies have made fluffy movies that are aiming to be inspirational but are far too condescending to show true emotion.

Take a film like 'Rain Man' (1988). This is one of many films where the lead actor gets the Best Actor Oscar for a performance as someone with a disability. Dustin Hoffman is a wonderful actor, but I do not like his performance in this movie. I think it is similar to Russell Crowe’s performance in 'A Beautiful Mind'. The performance seems to be based on the way that character moves and talks rather than simply emoting. Rather than turning this into a living a breathing character we get Hoffman with various idiosyncrasies that will make him be perceived as Autistic. It is films of this nature that reinforce some people’s ignorance about Autism and Mental Illness. A film like 'Rain Man', winning Oscars is such a shame as it reinforces this patronizing look on disability and mental health as a sure way to get audiences to watch the movie.

Films like 'Rain Man, do not show anything beyond generalized view of autism, which shows an ignorance of the disorder and how varied the A.S.D can be. The general public then is still left with a lack of awareness about the disorder. In fact to be compared to Rain Man now is somewhat of an insult. People remember his struggles with social life as comic and his brilliance with numbers as freakish rather than encouraging the audience to respect and empathize with the impairment. Empathy allows an audience to understand the character and their emotions rather than the sympathy and pity that the audience get from the characters of John Nash from 'A Beautiful Mind' and Raymond Babbitt from Rain Man.

The end result for both films is a film that is a success at the box office which earns a reputation as housing a great performance of someone with autism (Rain Man) or schizophrenia (A Beautiful Mind) rather than portraying human beings facing the turbulence of life in general.

This is something that is created in 'The Hours (2002), where the three protagonists are dealing from depression. The film tries to get the audience to connect with them instead of judge them and I think succeeds at this.  

The disdainful look of pity towards minority groups is certainly not evolving with movies like 'The Help' (2011), which was nominated for Best Picture and several other major awards. 'The Help' has a desire to be uplifting, which sometimes overrides the brutality of the subject matter. It is unpleasant viewing at times, with emotion played out very theatrically. But it lacks rawness, the film should be more uncomfortable viewing considering the harsh subject matter. The film could have achieved something uplifting without being so clichéd and syrupy.

Then there are the films like 'We Need to talk about Kevin' (2011) which go completely unnoticed by The Academy. 'We Need to talk about Kevin' was a film with an individual touch, edited in a strange way and not shy in tackling the harsh subject of the book. The film is something that deserved to be rewarded. The uncomfortable and unconventional subject the film deals with is a mother (Tilda Swinton) who does not love, and even hates, her own son, due to her belief that he is evil.

Tilda Swinton’s brilliant performance as a mother on the edge should have really received a nomination for Best Actress. Instead the Oscars nominate Rooney Mara for a Hollywood remake of the Swedish film, 'Girl With A Dragon Tattoo'. I have not seen the remake, but from the trailer Mara’s performance seems pretty much the same as Noomi Repace’s (lead in the Swedish original film).

How can a copycat performance be considered higher than Swinton’s original take on motherhood? My thoughts are that there were three reasons she was not nominated. Firstly, Swinton is British and they gave too many awards to the Brits the year before, so needed to keep their national pride up. Secondly, 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' is directed by a British woman. How many female directors have ever won a Best Director award? One. I think it is fair to say that the Academy are not fond of any film directed by a woman, no matter how good it is. Thirdly, the film is unconventional, both in its subject matter and its editing.

Unconventional films have also had a history of having a hard time at the Oscars. Take when 'A Beautiful Mind' won Best Picture and Best Director there were two films, 'Mullholland Drive' and 'Gosford Park', that were far better that should have won. It is very hard for British films or British Actors or Actresses to win awards from the Oscars. Look how long it took for them to give Kate Winslet one and she put in an Oscar worthy performance in many of her films before her win for The Reader (2008).

However, there is 'The King’s Speech' (2010) which won Best Actor, Best Director and Best Film. The Brits stole the Oscars with this movie. I was in two minds about this. I was happy that British people were doing well but I was also irritated that the British film, which won was so Hollywood, with the traditional story of the underdog doing well in his inspiring story, again with the actor Colin Firth being rewarded with an Oscar for playing someone with an impairment. Also the impairment is yet again portrayed in a condescending way, by trying so hard to be inspirational.

There have been always been massive surprises like Penelope Cruz winning Best Supporting Actress for Vicky Cristina Barcelona  (2008) instead of Viola Davis. Davis’ performance in Doubt (2008) was absolutely exceptional and I cannot believe she did not win for this. Then there is the 71st Academy Awards. I have no idea what they were thinking that year. 'Shakespeare in Love' (1998), swept up the major awards, the Brits were winning them all again. Except this time, we didn’t deserve them. 'Shakespeare in Love' is a fluffy romantic comedy, filled with jokes for Shakespeare fans to search for. Gwyenth Paltrow also won for Best Actress nut some of the other nominees did a far greater job. For example there was Meryl Streep with her very moving performance in 'One True Thing' and Emily Watson, nominated for 'Hilary and Jackie'. Emily Watson is another British actress who the academy has failed to recognize.

I could talk about how unfair the Oscars can be for hours. It is unfair that the Harry Potter series did not win one single Oscar for example. I predict that the Oscar’s will continue to be unfair in their judgments. For example it will probably be a long time before women are more highly recognized with directorial awards and I think that the Academy will always be more eager to award American films awards before any other countries (despite of course their award for best Foreign Film).

There are of course many films, crew and actors who have highly deserved their awards and it is a shame that not all of the awards are this fairly distributed. Hopefully, people will not rely on the Oscars as the greatest judge of which movies deserve credit and which do not.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 5 July 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 5 July 2012

A Beautiful Mind (2001) starring Russell Crowe

Despite the fact that this movie was very well received, including winning the Best Picture Oscar at the 74th Academy Awards Ceremony (2002), the film’s representation of mental illness is not dissimilar to 'Benny and Joon'. Both films depict sentimental and condescending portrayals of mental illness.

‘A Beautiful Mind’ opens with a dramatic and slightly eerie score, which propels the audience into the mind of Nash, as played by Russell Crowe. The film is a biographical account of Nash’s life story and follows him from his days at Princeton University in 1947 as a student until he wins a Nobel Prize for economics and is teaching at Princeton in 1994.

At university Nash is judged for being different and eccentric, but also because he is there on a scholarship. However, it is unclear at this point that he is mentally ill. It is only after he leaves university that he is diagnosed as ‘suffering’ paranoid schizophrenia. The audience is given the experience of Nash’s delusions of being a spy for the FBI, detecting codes put there by Russian/ Communist spies. This also gives the viewer a perspective on Nash’s disorientation when he discovers his visions are not real. The film also portrays his fear of the mental institution, especially during scenes when he is strapped down in a bed and given electric shocks and injections of insulin. The barbarity of these ‘treatments’ is explained as the best thing for Nash, in the long run, and shows that this is what he needs to get better.

Like Benny and Joon, the film endorses the mental health system, focussing on the necessity of Nash’s medication and the supposed strength it gives him to deny delusions and accept reality. Russell Crowe gives a method performance, based on body movement and mannerism, rather than giving a true emotional connection with the character.

Another weakness of the film is its lack of courage in portraying the huge prejudice towards mental illness at the time of Nash’s time in a mental institution in suburban America in 1959.

‘A Beautiful Mind’ also portrays Nash’s wife Alicia, (Jennifer Connelly), simply as a stand-in for 1950s suburban ideals of what a long-suffering housewife should be. Alicia is a very smart woman who studies maths at Princeton University. However as the ‘perfect wife’ she is completely self-sacrificing. Instead of the film showing how wrong it was to let this woman waste her Degree and suffer in silence for the sake of her husband’s career, she is made a martyr; a role model for all women. The film insists upon a ‘calm down and carry on’ attitude; damaging to women affected by mental illness, who are made to feel guilty.

The score to the film is equally sentimental – and typical of Hollywood – seeks to manipulate the viewer’s emotions to feel sympathy and to be inspired by Nash’s story. Instead the result is insincerity and a total lack of connection.

At the conclusion, Nash sees the people of his delusions. His wife asks him if there is anything wrong and he replies: “Nothing, nothing at all”. So the viewer is given the impression that he is completely untroubled by his illness, or if he is he is unwilling to share his troubles with anyone else and it is simply brushed under the carpet. So like Benny and Joon, the film ties up the negative experience of mental illness in a positive spin. The viewer is meant to believe that Nash has recovered, thanks to the ministrations of the psychiatric system. However, the real John Nash experienced difficulties his whole life. He had to keep on fighting mental illness, due to the poor mental health system of the time.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 30 May 2012

Last modified by Anonymous, 11 December 2012

Temple Grandin (2010), starring Clare Danes

Temple Grandin is an animal behaviour expert and autism advocate. HBO recently (2010) made a film following her early years staring Clare Danes for which role Danes won a Golden Globe.

The film shows Temple on her path to university and sees some of her past in flashbacks and a bit of what she managed to accomplish after she finished her studies. The film really makes the viewer see life through Temple’s eyes. Therefore, you get a sense of what it is like being autistic, such as being hypersensitive to sound and seeing things through pictures rather than words. In this way, Temple’s way of seeing the world is celebrated; it is very much stressed that she is 'different not less'.

The film does not shy away from a criticism of general views of autism in the years that Temple was growing up, the 50s to the 70s. The doctors' understanding of autism was then very much distorted, labelling people with autism in some cases, as with Temple, as having infantile schizophrenia. A key idea at the time was making the condition the fault of the mother, saying autism was due to 'refrigerator mothers' not putting enough care and affection into their child’s early life. Of course this is a horrible view and thankfully one that has shifted to people now having a richer understanding of the the autistic spectrum.

More generally, the film focuses on what people can achieve despite, or even because of, their impairments. For instance, because Temple is autistic, she is able to see the world differently from others and is able to create things and design ingenious systems that help animals and people.

This movie could be a real inspiration to autistic people and their parents. It has also made me want to go and buy a few books by Temple as I am sure they are as interesting and inspiring as the film.

One draw back of the film is that focusing on Temple only it does not show how different people with autism can be from each other, but it does make the point that it is worth the effort and the hard work of giving every autistic child extra attention in terms of considering different learning styles. Given the right level of affection and good quality teaching, young autistic children can go on to great things.

But a richer understanding of autism is only partly what this movie is aiming to achieve, and its director (Mick Jackson) or stars would probably advise wider reading for that. What it does instead is show for all Temple's achievements the world can be cruel and judgmental and maybe we should be less so when it comes to difference, since different people can achieve great things, and 'different is not less'.

The film originally aired in the UK on Sky Atlantic (2012). A UK (Region 2) DVD is going to be released soon.


Posted by Anonymous, 24 April 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 30 May 2012

Benny and Joon (1993), starring Johnny Depp

I recently came across Benny and Joon, as part of my film course. Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik and released in 1993, this movie is a typically Hollywood representation of mental illness, despite being an enjoyable romantic comedy/drama. The character of Joon is said to be suffering from a mental illness, but it is unclear what she is suffering from; she is only referred to as “mentally ill”. Psychology students have suggested different diagnoses, one suggesting she is an “obsessive-compulsive schizophrenic”.

Joon, played by Mary Stewart Masterson, lives with her brother, Benny and he appreciates that she has a unique way of seeing the world and is a very talented artist. Her mental illness causes her to be over-dependent on her brother, and for Benny to be very over-protective of her. Joon also causes problems for him. For instance she has a habit of setting things on fire. Subsequently he believes he cannot leave her alone and so hardly ever leaves the house.

Then there is the entrance of Sam, a quirky character, played by Johnny Depp. His clownish antics seem to help Joon’s mood, and keeps her bad days to a minimum. The calming affect he has on her seems clichéd, as not all romantic involvements have such an effect when someone is really suffering from mental illness. Her illness never seems to be too problematic; it seems that she is more quirky and interesting rather than really mentally ill. She is faced with a more severe symptom of illness, when she and Sam try leave town on a bus when she has a panic attack. However, this is the only large-scale problem she is seen dealing with.

After this incident, she is taken to the mental hospital, where she wishes to stay as an in-patient. However, Sam and Benny reason with her and she makes a decision to try and live by herself. She is able to get over her dependency on Benny, and he stops being over-protective of her.

Her being able to live as an out-patient seems fitting to the safe way in which mental illness is portrayed in the movie. The film never explores what illness she has or how the medication affects her, in any depth. Any such problems she might face in daily life are seen from a distance glance and not from her point of view.

The mental health system is portrayed in a good light. Money is never brought up, never saying how much it would cost to be an in-patient, or how much the psychotherapy is costing Benny, which is notoriously expensive.

At the end of the film, Joon and Sam are shown to be happy in an apartment, ironing toast. They are both quirky – implying that they are living with mental illness, without fully entering that world. Although, the film does show the strain of the family and the conflicts they face when pressured by doctors to put their loved ones into a mental health facility, it does not push any boundaries. Largely it offers a very safe representation of mental illness.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 24 April 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 22 April 2014

Bringing a safe space to disabled students at Kingston university

I have recently started a society at my university called Safe Space. This offers a safe space for people with, or knows those with, disabilities and mental health issues. It will be a place where people affected by disabilities can come and talk in a safe and friendly environment.

The picture on the right is now the picture for the Safe Space group page on facebook (KU Safe Space Society). My sister drew this picture. She has a speech difficulty but when she is using her talents in art, her difficulties disappear and she becomes filled with happiness. I thought this picture represented what I wanted Safe Space to be, a place where people with difficulties can come and just enjoy themselves.

I started this society as I felt that the students with disabilities were not getting their opinions heard. There were many people with disabilities I talked to in the university said they had never met anyone else with a disability or knew the right people to talk to about gaining further support. Due to these problems, many people expressed feelings of isolation. I want to change this. I want people with disabilities to know they are not alone. I can also give them a link to people who provide some guidance if they need extra help.

I recently learned there were a high number of students who registered a disability on their application but did not persevere and get a Needs Assessment where you receive help from the government. I know that without the help I received after my Needs Assessment I would not have made it to the third year of university. I also want a place for people with disabilities to come where to feel more involved with university life. It sometimes feels in life that you are continually labelled and those labels can feel like such a burden. But if we have this Safe Space, there will be a place where you will not feel like a minority and can simply enjoy yourself.

I really believe in the importance of this society. This semester I am going to put all of my effort into making this a success. As soon as the semester starts I want to promote a screening event and book a large lecture hall for it. I am going to screen 'Don’t call me Stupid'. This is a great documentary on dyslexia and I hope that the many dyslexics at the university will come to see it. I also hope that it will make students with all types of disabilities aware of the society’s existence and interest them in coming to a future meeting.

Hopefully this event will succeed and people will start coming to more of Safe Space’s events!

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 3 February 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 4 February 2012