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Till Human Voices Wake Us (February 22/03)

Till Human Voices Wake Us has all the makings of an epic love story - flashbacks and everything - but the languid pace and muted performances prevent the film from becoming anything more than a really well-shot and occasionally brilliantly acted romance.

As the movie opens, Sam (Guy Pearce) receives word that his father has passed away. He heads back to his hometown to collect the body, and while en route he begins remembering his childhood. Specifically, one pivotal summer during which he began a short-lived romance with a local girl named Silvy. Back in the present, he meets an enigmatic woman named Ruby (Helena Bonham Carter) - who he winds up saving after she tries committing suicide. The attempt leaves her with amnesia, though, and the two work at restoring her memory - while Sam comes to grips with that unforgettable summer.

Till Human Voices Wake Us marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Michael Petroni (he wrote The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys and co-wrote, uh, Queen of the Damned), and suffers from just the sort of indulgences one expects from a first-timer. Petroni isn't terribly concerned with creating a consistently entertaining film; rather, his focus is on whipping up an enigmatic atmosphere, rife with characters reflecting on their lives. Sam should have been a compelling figure - especially once we learn how traumatic his childhood was - but Petroni prefers to keep us at arms length from the character. Though Pearce is quite good in this role, he's unable to turn Sam into someone we really care about - due mostly to Petroni's refusal to imbue the character with any defining characteristics other than longing and suffering.

All of that is exacerbated by the film's dreamy style; the camera lingers on trees and still waters, and it's presumably all supposed to add up to something majestic. And while there's no denying that the cinematography (by Roger Lanser) is impressively gorgeous, it's hard to be too impressed by it when you're bored silly. That's a mild overstatement - the performances alone assure that the film remains consistently watchable - but Petroni's leisurely approach to the material indicates that this would've been far more effective as a short.

And by the time the film's secrets have been revealed - most notably the true identity of Ruby - it's hard to really care. We've been beaten into submission by the pace (which is virtually stationary), which undoubtedly gives the film a meditative air, but since there's nothing much of interest here, we're forced into daydreaming about mundane things (ie did I turn the oven off when I left the house?) Still, it's not a complete wash - the film is quite spectacular on a purely visceral level and the performances (particularly the two kids playing Sam and Silvy) are better than the script deserves.

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