I feel sorry for Till Human Voices Wake Us, the new supernatural romance starring Guy Pearce and Helena Bonham Carter. Not because it's a good movie that won't get the respect it deserves - it is, in fact, a quite slow and heavy-handed film - but because it has the bad luck to open only one week before David Cronenberg's masterpiece Spider, a far better film that shares many of the same themes and devices. If timing is everything, Till Human Voices Wake Us has very little going for it.
Michael Petroni, the film's writer/first-time director, wrote the screenplay for Till Human Voices Wake Us while still attending LA's American Film Institute and, according to my press notes, won a couple of awards for this story, which concerns an Australian psychologist forced to confront his past demons after meeting a mysterious young woman while at his family's summer house to bury his father. Like Cronenberg's infinitely superior examination of the mind's destructive capacity for denial, the film exists on two planes: the present, which finds Dr. Sam Frank (Pearce) trying to figure out who Ruby (Carter) is and why she's in the small Aussie town of Genoa; and the past, in which we learn about Sam's childhood summer romance with a young beauty named Sylvia.
What may have worked on the page, however, seems all too literal and obvious when projected large on the screen. Even though Petroni's capable direction frequently results in spare, lovely compositions, the film is woefully short on suspense and credible romance. Sam begins the film stating, "There are two types of forgetting: active and passive," and it's no surprise to discover that Sam is an expert at the former, willingly repressing a childhood tragedy that he cannot consciously confront. Pearce, burdened with an unflatteringly short haircut and bushy goatee, certainly possesses the intensity required for the role of Sam, and there are moments - such as when Sam stumbles upon a photo of his childhood love, gently caressing it with desperate longing - in which he conveys the torment of a man who, in an effort of self-preservation, has closed himself off from the world.
The film, however, keeps letting its lead performers down. While Lindley Joyner and Brooke Harman - two compelling young actors who play the childhood Sam and Sylvia - exhibit the awkward romantic tension that characterizes so many youthful trysts, the chemistry between their adult counterparts, Pearce and Carter, has all the spark of a wet match. Bonham Carter is given the thankless role of Ruby, a woman who Sam initially meets on the train to Genoa, and then again late one night when he rescues her from a suicide plunge off a bridge into the local river. Ruby emerges from the water an amnesiac, but as the film's cross-cutting between past and present makes painfully obvious, her presence in Genoa - and in Sam's life - is less a coincidence than a magical second chance for Sam at love, life, and healing.
Ruby wanders around the quaint rural town, visiting lots of Sam's childhood hangouts in a confused, wide-eyed daze, pushed and pulled by cosmic forces that seem to defy logical reason. Unfortunately, the film's mystery is easily deduced after the first 20 minutes, making it difficult to find anything very awe-inspiring or revelatory about the film's increasingly contrived surprises. Petroni's Till Human Voices Wake Us would have us believe that the key to emotional and psychological health and happiness is obtained by confronting one's past. A few less ghosts, and I might have believed him.
Wake up, sleepy head.