- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2003

It's the rare movie that presumes to extract its title from a famous poem, so the temerity of "Till Human Voices Wake Us," an Australian import that seems to promise some kind of romantic melodrama co-starring Guy Pearce and Helena Bonham Carter, is a trifle arresting.

The source is the last line of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which remains considerably more effective at eloquence and evocation than does the movie, a frail vessel of a tear-jerker written and directed by Michael Petroni, who left a maliciously disenchanting calling card a year ago, "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys."

A homecoming project for Mr. Petroni, "Voices" suggests that an early mellowing hasn't quite worked for him. The flashback-saturated plot revolves around the lovelorn past and present of Mr. Pearce as a physician, Dr. Sam Franks. It could be argued persuasively that the co-stars of record are actually supporting players, because a considerable stretch of material depicts Dr. Franks as a mere teenager, impersonated by Lindley Joyner.

In this incarnation, the hero is observed repeatedly during a summer of promise and regret 20 years ago. He hangs out with a farm lass named Silvy Lewis, portrayed by Brooke Harman. Their wistful courtship includes poetry reading and flurries of wordplay. Because Silvy is still recovering from polio and wears leg braces that severely limit her mobility, the fact that Sam is a potential sweetheart is also a godsend for the girl's parents, who think the world of him.

If one could subdue the very strong suspicion that Mr. Petroni was readying some sucker punches, the outline of the Sam-Silvy courtship might be trusted as a promising sentimental throwback. Memories of that distant summer are triggered when Dr. Franks returns to Genoa for the funeral of his father, also a Dr. Franks (Peter Curtin) and quickly discredited in flashback as a man incapable of comforting a son in need of solace. We're cued to something traumatic for young Sam long before it's clarified.

What accounts for dad's icy exterior? Perhaps it was because he was a widower. Perhaps it was because he preferred to study insects. Imponderables both, but movie writers learn early to settle for the flimsy. Anyway, Sam then and now is out of luck when it comes to paternal hugs and reassurance.

While traveling by train to Genoa, the adult Sam encounters a stranger in the same compartment: Miss Bonham Carter as a creature called Ruby, who has a funny way of seeming invisible to everyone except Sam and us as if she had just stepped out of "The Sixth Sense," almost.

The more promising trick idea is that she appears to be an amnesiac. What a coincidence. Guy Pearce took movie amnesia to an astonishing new level in "Memento." It might be enjoyable to watch him treat Miss Bonham Carter for the same malady. The course of therapy selected by Mr. Petroni includes not only that old cinematic chestnut hypnosis, but also sexual intercourse, which had to remain implicit in the vintage Freudian days of "Spellbound."

Though there's something to be said for Mr. Pearce and Miss Bonham Carter doing role switches with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, a close encounter with "Voices" demonstrates that it might be more fun if they were simply remaking "Spellbound."

The supernatural shortcomings of the Petroni scenario are downright needy: No aspect of the movie's system of illusion is clever enough to disguise the extremely high probability that Ruby is a phantom, conjured up by Dr. Franks when his thoughts hark back to the summer of Silvy, which actually should be spelled Sylvie or Silvey in order to get the word "lives" completely into an ironic anagram.

By the time Mr. Pearce has wallowed completely in Mr. Petroni's slough of despond, you want to play kick the can with "Till Human Voices Wake Us." The possibilities for burlesque look infinite. Mr. Pearce might as well stage a viking funeral for his long-gone beloved. He might as well assume her identity and try to fit into her wardrobe. He might as well take an endless swim to never-never land.

Seldom has a sorrowful mood looked so ridiculous. Let's not even get into how unflattering this movie is for Helena Bonham Carter. I'm not sure I want to be reminded that she may be approaching one of those awkward casting ages. It's discouraging enough to observe Guy Pearce at the mercy of dreary material so soon after nailing the role of a career in "Memento."


*

TITLE: "Till Human Voices Wake Us"

RATING: R (Morbid story elements; fleeting nudity and violence; fragmentary depiction of the birth of a calf)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Michael Petroni. Cinematography by Roger Lanser. Production design by Ralph Moser. Costume design by Jeanie Cameron. Music by Amotz Plessner

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes

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