[Screen It]

(2003) (Guy Pearce, Helena Bonham Carter) (R)

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Drama: A man saves an amnesic woman who eerily seems like a grown-up version of his first love who disappeared decades ago.
Dr. Sam Franks (GUY PEARCE) is a psychiatrist who's just returned home to Genoa to bury his father. While going through his childhood home and looking over his former belongings, Sam remembers when he was just a boy (LINDLEY JOYNER) whose father, Dr. David Franks (PETER CURTIN), had little time for him. Accordingly, he met and befriended Silvy Lewis (BROOKE HARMAN), a girl his age who was into poetry and wore braces on her legs.

They spent a great deal of time together - with him even working for Silvy's dad -- Maurie (FRANK GALLACHER) - and their friendship teetered on romance. Then something horrific happened that forever changed how Sam viewed himself and life.

As those old emotions resurface, Sam ends up saving a woman he spotted on a train trestle moments before a train passed and sent her into the river below. She turns out to be Ruby (HELENA BONHAM CARTER), a woman he earlier met on another train, but she now suffers from amnesia and can't recall anything about herself or her life.

Oddly enough, however, she soon starts displaying behavior that reminds him of Silvy. As he ponders whether it's possibly her all of these years later, her ghost, or just a figment of his imagination, the terrible incident from the past that caused him to be the way he is today is finally revealed.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
The things that people love about poems - their lyricism, total reliance on words and being open to individual interpretation - are the same that others hate about them. Once a highly popular and influential art form, they're now pretty much relegated to bookstores and the elite.

Movies, on the other hand, are more popular than ever, although the majority of them don't share any of the above characteristics. Instead, most rely on visuals to get their story and/or point across, but that's just a byproduct of the medium rather than a fault. That said, very few films are open to interpretation with viewers usually having to accept the cut and dried view - if there even is one -- of the filmmaker.

Thus, it's an intriguing idea to make a film with all of its usual trappings as well as the heart and spirit of a poem. That is, along as it's done just right and doesn't come off as pretentious, experimental or confusing.

Writer/director Michael Petroni (making his directorial debut after penning "Queen of the Damned" and "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys") gives it a valiant try with "Till Human Voices Wake Us." A lyrical psychodrama about dealing with the past that haunts its protagonist in more ways than one, the film appropriately gets its title from a line in a T.S. Elliot poem.

Originally written way back in 1996 and recipient of the AFI and WGA screenwriting awards, the film and its ghostly story will likely remind some viewers of similar films such as "Beloved" and "Waking the Dead."

Unfortunately, the effort is haunted by its own set of problems. First and foremost is the purposefully nebulous ending that's open to varying levels of interpretation. The story focuses on a psychiatrist whose memories - good and bad - of his childhood are brought to the forefront by his father's death and the appearance of a mysterious woman with amnesia who reminds him of his long-lost childhood friend.

That's all fine and dandy and actually has some decent potential as we watch the temporally distinct dual stories unfold. One follows two youngsters -- Lindley Joyner (making his debut) and Brooke Harman (various TV shows) -- in the past and focuses on their special friendship and budding romance.

Since we know from the onset that something happens to her that leads to the present day story, our focus is on trying to figure out what that might be. As it unfolds, however, the story and its two characters come off as rather engaging in a young, first love sort of way. In addition, some of the flashback material does eventually make us feel for the adult protagonist who's initially somewhat unapproachable to most viewers in eliciting sympathy for his situation.

The other part of the plot deals with that emotionally detached psychiatrist -- Guy Pearce ("The Time Machine," "The Count of Monte Cristo") in a role reversal from his part in "Memento" - who tries to help the young and ravishing amnesic -- Helena Bonham Carter ("Novocane," "Fight Club") - regain her identity.

During those surprisingly dull and slow moments, we're supposed to guess whether Carter is a) the girl from his childhood who somehow managed to survive whatever tragedy apparently befell her; b) her ghost who's come back to haunt or at least contact him for any number of reasons; or c) a figment of his troubled and internally haunted psyche.

As in most such films, Petroni cuts back and forth between these parallel stories. Yet, rather than that tactic building suspense or viewer interest, it robs both sides of much needed momentum and continuity. It doesn't help that other parts of the film are heavy-handed, manipulative, feature unrealistic sounding dialogue and/or are loaded with too much obvious symbolism and clues connecting the past, present and the two female characters.

As a result, viewers are apt to feel that they're always ahead of the curve and especially Pearce's character in figuring things out. In some films, that's a good thing in giving viewers superior position. Here, however, it just makes thing feels that much more uneventful and dreadfully slow.

Had the approach been more subtle and/or laced with more of a supernatural tinge, the resultant viewer response might have been different. Unfortunately, that's not the case and the fact that we're never told the truth about Carter's character is likely to leave a sour taste in many a viewer's mouth.

As far as the performances are concerned, Joyner and Harman deliver the best ones and viewers are apt to wish that the film focused on just them and jettisoned the rest of the contemporary plot. Pierce delivers an appropriately internalized take in his role (considering the character and story setup), but that just makes him come off as boring and unapproachable most of the time (although he does occasionally break through and connect with the viewer).

Carter does the intentionally weird and flighty thing with her purposefully mysterious character, but we never come to feel for her either. As a result, she comes off more as a forced cinematic creation rather than a real person, spirit or product of a troubled mind (your pick).

In the end, I appreciate what Petroni was trying to do, especially since I'm somewhat fond of the supernaturally-tinged, lost love type stories. Unfortunately, the film's storytelling structure, obvious nature, slow pace and purposefully nebulous ending prevent it from being as good as it might have been. "Till Human Voices Wake Us" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed February 24, 2003 / Posted March 14, 2003

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