Till Human Voices Wake Us

Till Human Voices Wake Us

Australia/USA, 2003. Rated R. 97 minutes.

Cast: Guy Pearce, Helena Bonham Carter, Brooke Harman, Lindley Joyner, Peter Curtin, Frank Gallacher
Writer: Michael Petroni
Music: Amotz Plessner
Cinematographer: Roger Lanser
Producers: Thomas Augsberger, Matthias Emcke, Shana Levine, Dean Murphy, Nigel Odell, David Redman
Director: Michael Petroni


Grade: D+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

A  positive review of this film would no doubt characterize it as a moving examination of memory and loss set in a disappearing small Australian town. It would praise the film for being profound but not overwrought, relying on still simplicity and atmosphere to convey feelings of intense longing and grief. Oh, and it would no doubt use the word "poetic." Just in case you don't get the fact that the film is poetic, writer/director Michael Petroni has festooned it with a lot of actual poetry. Characters read verse and quote T.S. Eliot to one another.

A negative review would no doubt characterize it as a wretched hash involving memory and loss set in a disappearing small Australian town. It would condemn the film for being cumbersome and overwrought, relying overly on still simplicity and atmosphere instead of actual narrative to communicate vaguely defined characters and moods. Oh, and it would no doubt use the word "pretentious." To make sure the film puts on the proper airs, writer/director Michael Petroni has burdened it with a lot of actual poetry. This is the sort of film where the characters read verse and quote T.S. Eliot to one another.

Put me down for the latter kind of review. Till Human Voices Wake Us is so concerned with wordplay that the leads play word association games and one of the key communications between them comes via a Scrabble board. Helena Bonham CarterYet film is a visual, not a verbal motif. It takes more than flowery verbiage and characters walking around in bucolic settings that may be described with more flowery verbiage. Otherwise you've got Saturday Night Live's Jack Handey and his "Deep Thoughts."

The title of the movie, in fact, is taken from the last line of Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The last three words, "and we drown," are omitted but implicit in the title. There be watery motifs here. The first lines of the poem are in Italian, by the way, and the name of the town where the film is set is Genoa--Italian once again. The film is obviously inspired by Eliot's work.

Little can be said about the actual story without spoiling the surprises, as unsurprising as those surprises may be. Basically we have Dr. Sam Franks (Guy Pearce), an analyst, returning to his hometown to bury his father and bumping into an enigmatic woman named Ruby (Helena Bonham Carter) on the train. Later, he saves her from drowning when she jumps off a bridge (Ruby likens herself to Ophelia, whom Carter actually played in Zeffirelli's Hamlet), but the trauma causes amnesia. While all of this is happening, he flashes back to a summer from his youth that he spent with a girl named Sylvie (Brooke Harman), who wears braces on her legs. They spend most of their time riding around on his bicycle and hanging out by the river. Sam doesn't say much either as a teenager or a grown man, but the women seem to go for that. I guess he is a poetic figure.

The film's secrets--what happens to Sam and Sylvie, and who Ruby is--should be revealed to the observant viewer far sooner than the film gets around to doing so formally. As long as the outcome remains shrouded, Till Human Voices Wake Us might hold you, but once the conclusion becomes obvious, the meandering foot-dragging becomes irritating. Though a quiet film, Petroni finds melodrama in its minutiae, and so he takes his sweet time--time that would be better spent delving into the minutiae of Sam's underdeveloped character, because revealing Sam's inner life is beyond the emotive abilities of either Pearce, who makes Sam too brooding and introspective, or Lindley Joyner (who plays the young Sam). You can always settle down for a nap, until the final credits wake you.

Review © February 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images 2003 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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