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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness




Passionflower is the first full-length feature film written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Shelagh Carter. Released in 2011 and screened at a number of film festivals in Canada and the USA, where it won several awards, it has been made available for streaming on iTunes in August 2014. Passionflower tells the story of a young girl growing up with a mother who develops a mental illness and is closely based on Carter’s own childhood experiences. Her ability to use the creative processes of writing and directing in such an articulate way to describe her subjective childhood experiences offers a huge amount to the viewer. Superbly cast and set in Winnipeg in the 1960s, the film also offers an insightful commentary on the attitudes toward mental illness prevalent in that period.

I was fortunate to be able to meet with Shelagh Carter in March 2014 and to discuss the process of making such a personal film. I hope that our interview will make the viewing of the film all the more interesting and rewarding.

As Carter says in our interview:

The film is about forgiveness, it was a freeing act for me to do.”

Shelagh Carter

Press play to listen to the interview

The film

Passionflower begins with Sarah, aged about eleven, walking home from school clutching her report card. She seems pleased, in a self-contained way, but this all changes when she gets home and tells the good news to her mother, Beatrice, who fails to acknowledge the report at all but instead criticises Sarah’s appearance. Sarah, bruised but seemingly unsurprised by this response, picks up her cat, Rosie, whispering her grades quietly into her ear as she pours milk into the cat’s bowl. Later at dinner, when Sarah and her younger brother Thomas are forced to wait in silence, staring at the table filled with food until their father David returns home, a palpable sense of control and tension caused by Beatrice sets the scene for what follows. After eating, Beatrice plays some mellow music on the record player and invites David to dance with her in a sexually charged manner. Sarah is watching by the side of the room, the constant observer and narrator of the story. That night, at 4am, Sarah is woken by the sound of her mother’s distressed sobbing in another room. Again Sarah crouches out of sight to watch as her father tries to console Beatrice as he carries her back to bed. At a dinner party Beatrice behaves in an inappropriately flirtatious way toward the other men present whilst also being extremely rude to a female friend. Later that night, Sarah finds her mother lying curled up, naked and screaming with despair on the kitchen floor while Sarah crouches, crying and frightened close by until David arrives again to carry his wife back to bed. After these events, Beatrice takes to her bed, tired, irritable and depressed in mood and David asks a doctor to visit the home. Beatrice denies any significant problems and only admits to being “too emotional....I need to get some rest” and that she is not sleeping. A sedative is prescribed and a short break in hospital offered but Beatrice does not appear willing to consider this seriously. As the doctor leaves the house he asks Sarah if there is anything she wants to say, to which she replies, “I just want everything to be OK”.

Sarah makes a friend in Charlie, a boy in her school class who shares her love and talent for art and they each share a special place with the other, both locations have pictures of topless women displayed. Sarah uses the new images she sees to start drawing naked women and dressing them with her own fashion designs. Sarah tells Charlie that her mother was once a model and now makes her own clothes. Charlie replies that his mother is ‘just a Mom’. Sarah gets to observe Charlie’s loving relationship with his mother, which only serves to highlight the lack of affection she receives from her own mother.

Beatrice takes Sarah to visit her own mother who is resident in a long stay psychiatric institution and lacks coherent conversation but mentions passionflower in some poetry she recites. Beatrice becomes distressed after the visit and takes them for something to eat. Her mood changes dramatically when she makes eye contact with a man who comes into the diner causing her to announce, “we’re having an adventure”. On the way home, Sarah reminds Beatrice that Thomas must be collected from school, but after taking Sarah home, Beatrice drives off into the countryside oblivious of her responsibilities. Stopping on a deserted stretch of road, Beatrice takes her top off and rolls in the dirty road as the sound track goes silent. When she finally gets home late that night, David is distraught and angry and his mother, Constance, has arrived to support him. But still no action is taken to get help for Beatrice. Soon after, Beatrice seduces her friend’s husband in the house and Sarah comes home early from school to witness the adultery. Then Beatrice has the cat put down by the vet because its collar bell was annoying her but telling the children that Rosie was sick. Sarah is angry with disbelief that such a thing could happen and David’s mother finally suggests that a line has been crossed that requires immediate action.

At school, Sarah’s teacher discovers some of her naked drawings and recognises the artistic talent she has at the same time as acknowledging the inappropriateness of such material. David is summoned to the school despite Sarah initially blaming her friend Charlie for the drawings. David cannot reveal that there is anything ‘going on’ at home and just says “everything is fine”. By now, Sarah is sad and muddled and tells her father that she fears she will be “crazy like her Mum and Grandma”. He tries to reassure Sarah and finally acts to insist that Beatrice gets help in hospital, where she has a course of ECT to good effect but with consequent loss of memory for recent events. On returning home to a muted celebration, Beatrice immediately hugs Thomas but cannot offer any such affection to Sarah. In a painfully poignant moment Beatrice calmly tells Sarah “the storm is over dear”.

Relevance to the field of Mental Health

Passionflower is a film that examines the painful and challenging time in a family when the wife and mother of two young children starts to develop a mood disorder, leading eventually to her first psychiatric hospital admission at the end of the film. It captures the ‘moment of dawning’ as everyone begins to realise that Beatrice’s behaviour is seriously abnormal but also presents the huge difficulties faced by father and husband, David, whose lack of action, in an attempt to maintain ‘normality’, becomes increasingly problematic. The film shows so well the precarious position that children are in when being parented by an adult who is mentally unwell and not receiving treatment or support from outside the home. David’s struggle to acknowledge the strain the family is under as a result of his wife’s mental illness is subtly portrayed and his lonely position is acutely felt as

his loving and well meaning attempts to try and cover over the cracks for too long finally fail and the crisis of hospital admission becomes inevitable. It is the intimacy of this drama that is so valuable to the viewer.

By telling the story through the eyes of Sarah, who is on the verge of puberty, the topic of her developing sexuality is sensitively contrasted with her mother’s increasingly disinhibited attitude to her own body and sexual behaviour, characteristic of hypomania. The film also portrays certain painful moments of depressive despair and irritability in Beatrice, witnessed by her young daughter, which could be used for teaching about the way such experiences can affect family members, especially children, and how interventions may be structured to support each individual in those circumstances. 

This is a powerful and compelling film to watch. With the knowledge that Carter had to tell this story to complete her own process of recovery from her childhood experiences, the viewer becomes part of that process, in bearing witness to these events. In some ways the film places the viewer in lieu of a psychotherapist receiving a subjective account from midlife of troubling childhood memories. Perhaps the film could be used as a foundation for discussion on how one might work with such memories, using a variety of different approaches to individual therapy, in order to aid the process of healing and recovery. In this context a book that might be of interest is The Handbook of Individual Therapy, edited by Windy Dryden and Andrew Reeves; SAGE Publications Ltd; Sixth Edition edition (15 Nov 2013), which examines the theory and practice of a broad range of therapies available in the UK at present.

Passionflower offers the viewer an opportunity to enhance their understanding of what it might be like to live with someone who is mentally unwell and whose behaviour is unpredictable, when explanations and reassurances are not forthcoming. As such it is a most valuable learning tool for anyone interested in working in the mental health professions.

* More information about Passionflower can be found at the film’s website as can a short trailer.

* Passionflower is available for streaming on iTunes.

* Minds on Film is written by Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Joyce Almeida



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About this blog


Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.