A singularly weird case of schizophrenia is delineated in “Voices,” first feature outing by Oscar-winning docu director Malcolm Clarke. Based on the implosive dual identities of Brit composer Peter Warlock and music critic Philip Heseltine , somber drama holds a degree of fascination due to the unique real-life puzzle it presents, but the telling is too prosaic and the central relationship too unconvincing for the picture to deliver the haunting impact the subject would seem to promise. Produced with the participation of Sony Classical Music but without a distrib at present, pic could find a niche among high-culture aficionados and mystery addicts, but would need careful nurturing to find its proper receptive audience.
Somewhat fictionalized by scenarists Peter Barnes and Nicholas Meyer but founded on fact, carefully crafted pic puts itself behind the eight ball at the outset by asking the audience to take an interest in Philip Heseltine (Jeremy Northam), a haughtily disagreeable music critic for the London Journal, circa 1930. Dubbed “The Grim Reaper” for his vitriolic reviews, Heseltine grinds his ax especially sharp when taking on the work of Peter Warlock, a rising name in British music whom Heseltine accuses of stealing from other composers.
The young critic looks with considerably more favor upon the efforts of blond American chanteuse Lily Buxton (Tushka Bergen) who, after an old-fashioned “meet cute” in which she thinks he’s panned her show at the Kit Kat Club, agrees to go out with him despite her position that “I don’t like critics as a species.”
Unfortunately, the rather creepy and heartless Heseltine would seem to represent all that one might dislike about critics, and the picture never entirely surmounts the unbelievability of Lily’s romantic interest in this chilly, guarded fellow.
Heseltine’s attacks on his artistic nemesis escalate to an alarming degree until the point, halfway through, when Lily tracks down the elusive Warlock to his shabby apartment and makes a startling discovery that opens up all sorts of fascinating psychological territory.
The material is so rife with ramifications and melodramatic potential that it’s a wonder that no one seized upon it before: Hitchcock could have done a lot with it, and it also might have been ideal, in another way, for Ken Russell. In any event, the subject cries out for stylistic conviction and a strong point of view, neither of which Clarke supplies. Director’s approach to this far-out material is disappointingly neutral and tight, denying its full flowering either as a wrenchingly tragic tale of a frustrated artist or as a wildly improbable mystery.
Still, the picture retains a certain pull. Northam, recently seen as Sandra Bullock’s nemesis in “The Net,” surrounds his dual role with intrigue, although he might have laid on the charm a bit more in the early going to make Heseltine a more palatable romantic figure. Bergen’s Lily is hobbled by her unfathomable motivations for choosing Heseltine; as the supposed toast of London, she presumably would have had admirers lined up around the block.
Shot mostly in Montreal, pic has a lushly low-key studio look that serves its purpose. Numerous samples of Warlock’s music are heard; at first listen, it seems unarguably serious but of limited appeal.