It's difficult to be objective about a not-quite-satisfactory movie that only serves to remind you of a sensational one, and that's exactly what "Till Human Voices Wake Us" did for me.
It's a dead-lover's-ghost story about a handsome, disconnected Australian psych professor named Dr. Sam Frank (Guy Pearce, "Memento") who returns to his hamlet hometown for his father's funeral, only to find himself flooded with memories of the childhood sweetheart whose drowning has clearly haunted and disillusioned his whole life.
In flashbacks we see Sam as a cheerful 13-year-old (Lindley Joyner) falling tentatively in love with his best friend Silvy (Brooke Harmon), a sweet, open-faced girl whose spirit is completely unrestrained by the polio that keeps her in leg braces. In the present day, oh-so-serious adult Sam rescues a beautiful stranger (Helena Bonham Carter) he sees jumping from a train trestle during a rainstorm in an apparent suicide attempt. When she wakes in his father's house with total amnesia, the memories that eventually start returning to her seem to be those of Silvy -- a fact that both entrances and rattles Sam, and awakens his deadened soul.
But the way writer-director Michael Petroni pulls these paranormal events together has little mystique, and his talented stars somehow lack the lost-love emotional quintessence needed to properly engulf the audience in the picture's supernatural romanticism.
I kept hoping "Voices" was on the verge of clutching my heart the way Anthony Mingella's devastatingly romantic and often funny "Truly Madly Deeply" did. That 1991 film starred Juliette Stevenson as a young widow whose resounding grief brings back her husband's ghost (Alan Rickman), leaving her with a crisis of closure issues. ("Ghost" also crossed my mind, because of the great chemistry between dead Patrick Swayze and weeping widow Demi Moore.)
To be fair, I must acknowledge that this film is an entirely different animal. It's more haunting than sentimental. It's about a man beset by 20 years of pain repression instead of a woman bearing up to a recent loss, and about a ghost who is only slowly realizing who she is, not one fresh enough from the living world to remember.
But while the scenes from Sam's past accurately and melodiously depict the tenderness of first love (young Sam helps Silvy off with her braces so he can "dance" with her in the water of his favorite swimming hole, where he can support her weight in his skinny pubescent arms), the modern story seems dreary and dry by comparison -- and often over-written or elusively contrived.
There are too many clues far too early on that, after her accident, Bonham Carter is a bodily shell that the ghost of Silvy has found herself inhabiting. When Sam puts the disorientated mystery woman under hypnosis, for example, she's tellingly evasive. "How old are you now?" he asks. "I won't get any older," she replies.
Even though Bonham Carter's character behaves with a certain curious frivolity, she never really acts 13. (Where did she get the experience to seem so at ease when Sam takes her to bed? And, by the way, wouldn't that be existential pedophilia?) And just when the plot of "Voices" should be building to its most eerie and compelling, Petroni starts falling back on some weak and easy movie conventions.
The film's two adult stars give individually strong performances -- Pearce's unlocking of long-dormant emotion matches Bonham Carter's underlying bewilderment over being somehow out of sync with the world. But they never properly mesh. There's no hint of the spark shared between the two kids before young Sam is rocked by guilt when Silvy slips away from him in the water and disappears. So when the movie's psychological-crossroads climax comes around, it's a less than moving moment.
"Till Human Voices Wake Us" is also beleaguered by the kind of nit-picky problems one might not care to notice if properly absorbed in the story -- like a lot of conspicuously affected dialogue, like noticing that Bonham Carter always sports rats'-nest hair in modern roles (somebody buy that girl a brush!), and like the fact that both Sam's and Silvy's childhood homes are exactly as the were 20 years ago (right down to the sheets on the beds) when both families had long since moved away.
I liked what Petroni was trying to do in this film -- to capture, with intangible paranormal passion, the evocative and forlorn nature of love tragically torn asunder. But the simplicity of his plot devices and the lack of compelling chemistry just got me thinking about one thing: I bought "Truly Madly Deeply" on DVD some months ago and have yet to watch it.
Run time: 101 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 12th September 2002
Distributed by: Paramount Classics
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 25%
Fresh: 18 Rotten: 54
IMDB: 6.5 / 10
Director: Michael Petroni