This dank, gloomy essay into the supernatural tries hard to create an intriguing mood in which fate guides the lives of its wounded protagonists, but few will be interested in the outcome. After gathering dust for 18 months since its completion, pic is finally slipping into Oz cinemas for what will probably be a brief run. Overseas sales look to be meager, though some mild ancillary action is possible given the names involved.
As the title (a line from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem by T.S. Eliot) suggests, this is a film that takes itself very seriously. And for a while, despite the leaden pacing, writer-director Michael Petroni and his d.p., Roger Lanser, create an intriguing mood. But it soon becomes obvious that there’s little substance here, and even the most tolerant audiences are likely to be restless long before the foregone conclusion.
Schoolboy Sam Franks (Lindley Joiner) travels by train to spend the summer vacation with his widower father (Peter Curtin), a doctor who has little time for his son. Sam is far closer to Maurie Lewis (Frank Gallacher), an amiable Scot who lives nearby. Maurie’s crippled daughter, Silvy (Brooke Harman) is his closest friend. These two, who are about 14 years old, hang out together; Silvy rides on the back of Sam’s bicycle and watches him from a wooden jetty as he swims in the river.
Petroni spends about 25 minutes depicting languid summer days in which nothing much happens (when he’s not with Silvy, Sam helps Maurie on his farm) — until the night of a dance in the town, when the youngsters slip away and go down to the river. Here, they kiss for the first time, and Sam removes Silvy’s leg braces to allow her to enter the water; they float on their backs, side by side, and see a shooting star. “Make a wish,” says Sam, and, quite suddenly, Silvy disappears. A frantic Sam searches for her, but she’s gone forever; the police assume her body has lodged in a cave in deep water.
Years later, Sam, now played by Guy Pearce, teaches psychiatry and lives a solitary life still, presumably, haunted by the demons of that fateful summer night. He lives in Melbourne, but returns to Genoa, apparently for the first time in years, to bury his father. On the train there, he meets a young woman, Ruby (Helena Bonham Carter) and, later, rescues her when she falls from a bridge into the same river where Silvy drowned all those years before. He takes her to his father’s house, and the pair slowly bond as they revisit the places where he and Silvy used to spend time together.
What transpires is fairly predictable, though open to various interpretations, including the one that Sam’s encounter with Ruby and everything that follows from it is no more than a dream. Water imagery abounds (it’s often raining) and various clues are offered, but no clear resolution is provided.
Given the film’s complete lack of urgency, it’s no surprise to find that “Till Human Voices Wake Us” proves to be an enervating screen experience. The screenplay’s problems are exacerbated by the fact that the young actors are so good in the first third of the film that, when they disappear from the story, a gaping hole is left behind, with audience identification the main casualty. Pearce and Bonham Carter give competent performances, but their roles are dully written, and once the viewer works out the significance of Ruby (which isn’t hard to do, since the film’s very title is a nudging clue, and an anagram of “Ruby” is “bury”) there’s little of interest to occupy the attention.
Lanser’s photography of limpid river scenes is quite beautiful, and there’s a strong, almost nonstop, music score by Dale Cornelius. But none of these accomplishments can disguise a screenplay which is really little more than an anecdote, and not a terribly interesting one at that.