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Till Human Voices Wake Us   B

Paramount Classics

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Petroni
Writer: Michael Petroni
Cast: Guy Pearce, Helena Bonham Carter, Brooke Harman, Lindley Joyner, Frank Gallacher, Peter Curtin.

Review by Rob Vaux

Till Human Voices Wake Us presents the work of a fledgling filmmaker, a piece apparently conceived and written in school, which now must stand on its own merits. Early films have a way of collapsing under their own pretension, as a youthful director reaches eagerly for important subject material that is still beyond his grasp. But if this version of the formula suffers from such a flaw, it also rewards the viewer for indulging it. It flirts with self-importance, but ultimately eschews "greatness" for something less ambitious... and becomes more successful as a result.

The press kit calls Till Human Voices a "supernatural romance," which is as apt a classification as any. Its key figure, Sam Frank (Guy Pearce), has suffered a personal disconnect, begun with the death of his childhood sweetheart Sylvie (Brook Harmon) and continuing with the passing of his emotionally distant father. We see him teaching clinical psychology classes and going home to an empty apartment, still grappling with demons that have never been entirely silenced.

The opening half is difficult, almost frustrating, as we follow Frank back to his hometown deep in the Australian bush, where his father is to be buried. Long segments of time pass where little goes on. He meets a strange woman named Ruby (Helena Bonham Carter) on the train, only to have her vanish after a brief introduction; he returns to his childhood haunts, now silent save for the hum of insects; he's overcome by memories of Sylvie and the summer they spent together. Director Michael Petroni labors to envelop us in the atmosphere of the town and surrounding countryside, to the exclusion of almost all else. He achieves a fine sense of the surreal, as the outback landscape intermingles with Frank's memories, but too much time is taken up with passive silence and too-obvious metaphors (a river running through the center of town, for example, or the repeated use of a T.S. Elliot poem). Pearce, thankfully, makes an engaging subject, and the nuances of his performance keep us aware, if not always enthusiastic, about the proceedings.

The payoff comes in the second hour, as the mood Petroni so painstakingly creates starts to bear fruit. Ruby reappears -- seemingly before Frank's eyes -- having lost her memories and sense of identity. He tries to help her, both out of altruism and to answer his own growing questions about her presence. Then she begins taking on traits of his lost sweetheart, and his initial fascination leads to a belief, both hopeful and terrifying, that she may be Sylvie's reincarnated spirit. As the pieces slide into place one by one, Petroni quietly links them to the earlier material, relying on Pearce, Carter, and the moody world surrounding them to pull us along. Carter has done work like this before -- Ruby makes an interesting (and modern) twist on the corseted dove roles she's striven so hard to escape -- but to see Pearce rise adroitly into an understated part is a real joy. The two balance sensitivity and feeling without descending into the maudlin, and Till Human Voices evokes sympathy for their journey while avoiding the sugary melodrama it might have become.

The result evokes a quiet sense of loss and longing, an emotional resonance that can't be seen until the last few sequences. Perhaps most tellingly, it leaves final interpretation up to the viewer, trusting us to assign meaning rather than explaining things to us like indolent children. It's almost too long, even at 97 minutes, but the final effect requires such discipline. Till Human Voices Wake Us slowly backs away from making any big, showy points, and in the process creates a whole that exceeds the sum of its parts. Had it pushed harder, it might have fallen into self-absorbed drivel. But by viewing itself as a totality rather than constantly trying to keep us entertained, it turns a slow ordeal into a quietly affecting meditation. It will bore some to tears, but those willing to let the film unfold will find it well worth the effort.

Review published 02.20.2003.

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