From Angelina Jolie and Nicole Kidman to Jennifer Lawrence and Jung Yu-mi – actresses who have tackled mental health honestly on screen

Angelina Jolie won an Oscar, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award for her turn as the manipulative, charismatic sociopath wardmate Lisa in the 1999 film Girl, Interrupted. Photo: Reuters

“One in four” is the woke world's oft-quoted catchphrase – referencing the number of people believed to suffer from mental health problems at some time in their lives. And yet cinema – society’s most powerful mirror and greatest empathy machine – has been historically reticent to commit realistic portraits on screen.

Worse – filmmakers have been clumsy, and cheap, mining mental stigmas to sketch crazed sociopathic villains (Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and, yes, even Joker ), or else playing serious conditions for comedic kicks (Thanks, Analyse This/That).

And that’s just the men; women meanwhile are too-often played as weak and “hysterical”, or deranged “bunny boilers” – much damage was done by Glenn Close’s spurned lover-turned-murderous maiden in Fatal Attraction (1987).

And one can detect a disturbing, exploitative objectification of unsettled female minds, a charge we can arguably level at Black Swan (2010), Darren Aronofsky’s highly stylised framing of Natalie Portman as a ballet dancer with a destructive commitment to perfection.

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So as we enter the saddest season of the year – a Blue January of shortened days, bled-dry bank accounts and family fallouts – let’s look at a few films that got it right by offering compelling, relatable portraits of women living with mental health issues. Or at least made an honest hash of trying to do so.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

American auteur John Cassavetes directed his wife and regular collaborator Gena Rowlands in this stark, unflinching portrait of an overstrained housewife in 1970s suburban Los Angeles, struggling to hold together a family both despite and because of good-natured but good-time husband Nick, a construction worker who eventually commits his wife to a six-month stay in an institution.

The extended scene where she returns home, to confront an Ill-advised welcome party, is gut-wrenching to sit through.

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

Based on Susanna Kaysen's 1993 memoir of an 18-month stay in a US mental institution after an attempted suicide, Girl, Interrupted brought stigmatised mental health issues squarely into the mainstream conversation at a pivotal time, thanks in large part to Winona Ryder’s nuanced performance as the 18-year-old lead.

However, it was Angelina Jolie who would win an Oscar, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award for her turn as the manipulative, charismatic sociopath wardmate Lisa. Jolie would soon open up about her own struggles with depression – while Kaysen herself would later disown the adaptation as “melodramatic drivel”.

The Hours (2002)

Based on Michael Cunningham's 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same title, scored by heavyweight minimalist mastermind Philip Glass and boasting an all-star cast of Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore, The Hours unravels one day in the life of three different women from different eras, whose stories are also somehow connected to Virginia Woolf’s classic stream of consciousness novel Mrs Dalloway.

The bow tying the whole devastating package together is Kidman’s Academy Award-winning portrayal of notoriously depressive Woolf herself, whose 1941 suicide – by walking into a river with pocketfuls of rocks – bookends the film.

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Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 (2019)

An adaptation of Cho Nam-joo’s bestselling novel of the same name, Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 sparked a timely fuse in Korea, firing an ongoing debate about the role of women in contemporary society – and the everyday, institutional sexism it documents is too sadly relevant and universally felt beyond borders.

At its core is Jung Yu-mi's role as the eponymous lead – a young mother whose grasp on reality is failing as she battles with postnatal depression, anxiety and delusions.

Melancholia (2011)

A troubled soul known for saying troubling things, Danish art house heavyweight Lars von Trier’s long battles with mental health informed his recent “Depression Trilogy” which, bookended by Antichrist (2009) and followed by Nymphomaniac (2013), reached a desolate peak of sorts with oblique Sci-fi-ish drama Melancholia (2011).

Kirsten Dunst received Cannes Film Festival’s best actress award for her haunting portrayal of a woman who moves in with her sister, Claire, after the onset of a depressive episode, battling a melancholy she never beats before the world ends. Trust us, it works.

 Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Few recent films have propelled mental health dialogue like Silver Linings Playbook, the first of three stellar movies David O. Russell directed starring the frontline of Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro (next up came American Hustle and Joy).

It was Lawrence who won the best actress Oscar for her portrayal of Tiffany Maxwell, a young widow with an unnamed disorder who connects with Cooper’s Pat Solitano, a bipolar sufferer recently released from a mental health facility and attempting to see the titular “silver linings” in everything.

Bonding over multisyllabic medications, the unlikely dance of a romcom ensues, delicately navigating the trauma, sweetness and despair of life felt by so many but so rarely explained. Based on Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel of the same name.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

The most bankable filmmaker in what was once called “world cinema”, Pedro Almodóvar has always been both a great director of women, and a sympathetic storyteller intent on exploring the submerged regions of psychological trauma and motivation – most recently epitomised in his feted, thinly veiled autobiography, Pain and Glory, chronicling his own decades-long battles with depression.

While he rarely unmasks so nakedly, it’s this sympathy that allows the director to paint his rainbow universe of anxious addicts and broken souls with such a light-yet-immersive touch.

The Spaniard’s goal is not to explain mental illness, but to discreetly slide us into unknown worlds – such as this breezy black comedy about a sleeping pill-popping actress Pepa Marcos (played wonderfully by Carmen Maura) amid a “crisis nerviosa”, an imperfectly translated term which better describes a highly distressed emotional outpouring in the writer-director’s native tongue.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page.

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These films offer compelling, relatable portraits of women living with mental health issues