VOICE FROM THE STONE

Producer: Dean Zanuck and Stefano Gallini-Durante
Director: Eric D. Howell
Writer: Andrew Shaw
Stars: Emilia Clarke, Marton Ssokas, Edward George Dring, Catherine Murino, Remo Girone and Lisa Gastoni
Studio: Momentum Pictures

C+

If atmosphere were everything, Eric D. Howell’s debut feature “Voice from the Stone” would be an unqualified winner. As adapted by Andrew Shaw from a 1996 novel by Silvio Raffo, the narrative creates a sense of mystery, and the measured approach of Howell and editor Clayton Condit—you might call it appropriately lapidary, given the title—along with the evocative Tuscan setting beautifully captured by cinematographer Peter Simonite, make for a visually arresting experience. The brooding score by Michael Wandmacher adds to the effect. It’s a pity, therefore, that the last act brings resolutions that are entirely too pat and simplistic. The result is an old-fashioned Gothic mood piece whose craftsmanship holds one’s attention, but proves disappointing in the end.

Emilia Clarke stars as Verena, a nurse specializing in helping troubled children. She responds to an advertisement placed by Klaus (Marton Csokas), a gloomy, bad-tempered widower living on a remote, heavily forested estate in North Italy. His nine-year old son Jakob (Edward George Dring) has refused to speak in the more than seven months since the death of his mother Malvina (Caterina Mureno), a celebrated concert pianist, and a succession of nurses has been unable to persuade him to do so. Verena is the latest to try.

Thus the stage is set for a story that calls to mind the work of the Brontes, or “The Turn of the Screw,” or “Rebecca,” and Howell and Condit emphasize the similarities by virtually mimicking the Hitchcockian style of his film of the latter (along with an occasional dash of “Vertigo” for good measure). They have a perfect setting for their tale—a looming castle rising from the greenery, half-covered in reddish vines with a family tomb close by, and surrounded by dense forest through which one must walk to reach the lake created by the old quarry that was the basis of Malvina’s family fortune, which stretched back for many generations.

The castle, in fact, is built of stone from the quarry, and therein lies the catalyst of Jakob’s condition. Verena, who is received with a grimly perfunctory air by the aged butler/groundskeeper (Remo Girone) but in a more genteel, friendly fashion by Lilia (Lisa Gastoni), the late Malvina’s elderly maid, soon discovers the reason behind Jakob’s silence: following his mother’s dying injunction, the boy habitually puts his ear to the stone walls of the castle, where he hears her speaking to him. And he apparently fears that the messages will cease if he speaks.

What ensues follows Gothic formula to a great extent. After a period of rationalistic doubt, Verena will hear Malvina’s voice in the walls herself. She will also be induced by Lilia into wearing Malvina’s old dresses, a sight that impels Klaus, a sculptor who has been unable to work since his wife’s death, to take up hammer and chisel again, enlisting the nurse to serve as his replacement model for a statue of his wife that remains unfinished in his studio. (That half-completed work, in a way, is a conduit for the dead woman’s voice, too.) Clearly acceptance of the past is the key for both father and son to overcoming their grief and starting anew. But how to achieve that end is complicated, even as Verena comes to accept her role in the process, by ghosts, either real or imagined, that come to haunt her as well as her employer.

“Voice” manages to draw viewers into this fairly predictable tale because of the somber, deliberate tone the makers bring to the story, but also through the patient, quietly effective performances of Clarke and Csokas, who never rush things and to some extent allow themselves to be moved around the rooms of the castle like pawns in a succession of tableaux. Young Dring brings an air of stillness to Jakob, though at times he comes across mannequin-like, and both Girone and Gastoni add a few eccentric touches to the two servants. This is essentially a chamber piece with a small cast, but all of them—along with the behind-the-camera technicians—seem to have fallen in enthusiastically with Howell’s vision.

When the time arrives to wrap things up, however, Howell rushes them, and suddenly there are shock effects like premature burials, a revelation about one of the characters that comes out of left field, and a romance that hasn’t been properly prepared for. It’s as if Howell and Shaw felt that the film’s deliberate pacing couldn’t be sustained to the end, and that a more conventionally pulse-pounding conclusion was required. That’s unfortunate; it undermines the goodwill the picture has built up, though it doesn’t completely dissipate it. And, of course, together the narrative turns bring the tale to an end in a sadly obvious fashion.

The upshot is that “Voice from the Stone” is a film that’s pleasurably unsettling for much of its running-time, but slides off the rails at the close—a near-miss.