Till Human Voices Wake Us
2003, R, 101 min. Directed by Michael Petroni. Starring Guy Pearce, Helena Bonham Carter, Frank Gallacher, Lindley Joyner, Brooke Harman, Peter Curtin.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 28, 2003
The past casts shadows that threaten to envelop the present and consume the future in this debut feature from the writer of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. Petroni takes his title from the final line of T.S. Eliot’s "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," a poem that, fittingly for Petroni, opens with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno. "Hell is other people," Sartre famously wrote in one of his more forgiving moments, but he may have been slightly off the mark: Hell, as a matter of fact, is watching Petroni’s immensely promising film shudder to a halt midway through, as it veers between a series of beautifully realized flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood and the film’s modern-day story in which psychotherapist Dr. Sam Franks (Pearce) revisits his rural Australian hometown following the death of his father and discovers (or perhaps doesn’t – Pearce’s blank expressions give less than nothing away) the reincarnated vision of his boyhood sweetheart. To call Petroni’s film lyrical would be a grave disservice to singer-songwriters everywhere. "DirgeLike" is more apt; the entire film has been shot under a steady, lachrymose drizzle. Even the shadows have shadows, and Dr. Franks, a shrink who is in dire need of some of his own medicine, wanders through his office and his native riverside town Genoa in a perpetual, twitchy daze. Petroni has two films in one here, actually, which may be an intentional representation of the good doctor’s semi-schizoid mental state, or it may just be that he wasn’t sure how to reconcile the two stories. In flashbacks throughout, we learn the story of young Sam’s (Joyner) tortuous and emotionally stunted upbringing at the hands of his icy-cool surgeon father (Curtin), who passes the time sketching beetles and making short work of Sam’s dreams, and his first love, a handicapped girl named Silvy (Harman) who ends up a drowning victim and inadvertently sets young Sam on a perilously unemotional course. Back in the here and now, Sam saves the mysterious Ruby (Carter) after she topples into a river, possibly a botched suicide, possibly an accident. Either way, when she comes to she has no memory of who she is or what she was doing atop a bridge in a driving rainstorm. It doesn’t take any great leap of logic to perceive there may be some connection between the dead Silvy and the damaged Ruby, and this is where Petroni’s film collides with itself. Early on, the mystery is all but revealed, which renders the rest of the film somewhat moot. Granted, Till Human Voices Wake Us is a beautiful thing to behold, with its dark, somber palette, Amotz Plessner’s brooding score, and aching, heartsick emotional center. Unfortunately, you’re left wondering "What if?," as in "What if the filmmaker had found a way to reconcile his two storylines into a cohesive whole? Wouldn’t that have made a wonderfully affecting film?" Why yes, it would have.