[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
There’s a constant question of how soon after a historical event — one both traumatic and significant — is the appropriate amount of time to wait to dramatize it.
When the feature-length “Help” was presented on Channel 4 at the beginning of last fall, we weren’t even a year and a half out from when the bulk of the story takes place. So for a fictional telling with so much emotional volatility (on the part of characters and potential audience members alike), finding performers who can manage that heavy, delicate lifting is a key task.
Fortunately, “Help” has twin pillars in the form of Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham, who anchor this look inside a Liverpool-area care home in the months leading up to and after the onset of the pandemic in early 2020. Comer stars as Sarah, a new hire at Bright Sky Homes who passes a faux adversarial job interview and settles in right away with the few dozen residents at the facility. One particular individual is Tony (Graham), a man not yet 50, adjusting to daily life with early-onset dementia.
Maybe the greatest gift that “Help” gives these characters is a balanced mix of emotions before the health crisis even starts. Rather than rushing straight into a tragic uptick in cases, the audience gets to see the individual residents go through the challenges and tiny moments of peace in their daily lives. One particular Christmas sequence captures both at the same time, with director Marc Munden — tackling a slightly different perspective on a global catastrophe than he did on “Utopia” — passing by a series of open doors to peek in on a wide variety of different family celebrations.
The heart of “Help” is a real-time sequence in the middle that finds Sarah as the only staff member at Bright Sky who can help a resident in need. The lone worker on site, Sarah urgently tries to mitigate the symptoms of a resident while an overtaxed emergency services infrastructure is busy responding to cases elsewhere. It’s an extended scene that could easily become overly self-serious or manipulative in the wrong hands. But both Comer and Munden stay steady, letting Sarah face the mounting pressure without adding unnecessary showiness. The arc between initial fear, physical perseverance, and a cathartic ending is a small, self-contained journey that drives home a reality that innumerable amount of healthcare workers faced daily in the worst days of 2020 and many others have continued to do ever since.
That coiled tension never fully subsides in the second half of “Help,” even as writer Jack Thorne manages to find a few narrative respites along the way. “Help” is a story that needs care, and there’s a tenderness in those heightened moments that extends through, particularly in scenes between Comer and Graham. Sarah using song lyrics to comfort an English teacher, the explanation of a simple game of cards, and the empathetic guiding of Tony to the memories of his family all make for a thoughtful approach to a delicate tale. The final ten minutes do land on slightly rockier footing, though, as Thorne tries to add more urgency beyond what “Help” has already earned.
That momentary added chaos still doesn’t cause the two main performances to falter. If there’s messiness in the ending of “Help,” that does still reflect anger toward a government response to the needs of its most vulnerable citizens. It’s an anger that is certainly not exclusive to the UK and one that will likely fuel many more projects in the coming years. For now, “Help” is an effective template for storytellers looking to engage with a crisis that’s still ongoing.
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