“Till the Usher’s Voice Rouses the Viewer from His Slumber” is more like it. The ghostly romance–the first directorial effort from writer Michael Petroni (who wrote the screenplay for “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys”)–is a long dirge of a movie, beautifully photographed by Roger Lansen but plodding and affected. The very title–derived from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (a favorite poem of one of the characters)–suggests how pretentious the whole thing is. But the pretensions aren’t matched by the realization.
The story, a mixture of flashbacks and contemporary sequences, is actually quite simple (if ultimately perplexing). Samuel Franks (Guy Pearce), an instructor in psychiatry at a Melbourne university, returns to Genoa, the same town where he grew up, for the burial of his father, physician David (Peter Curtin). Transporting the body by train, the rigid, self-controlled teacher meets a high-strung woman named Ruby (Helena Bonham Carter), though he quickly loses contact with her. Once in Genoa, Samuel is haunted by memories of his boyhood; in particular he recalls a summer there with his widowed father. The young Sam (Lindley Joyner) spent most of his time not with the taciturn, uncommunicative doctor, however, but with a gregarious Scottish farmer (Frank Gallacher) who lives nearby and his crippled daughter Silvy (Brooke Harman). He had a crush on the girl, and on a last evening together they went off alone to the river, where he removed her leg braces to allow them to watch the sky as they floated on the surface. The idyllic moment was shattered, however, when Silvy was carried away by the current and drowned. Back in the present, Sam rescues Ruby after she falls (or jumps) into the river on a rainy night. He takes her back to his father’s old house, where she’s unable to remember her past and he uses his expertise–including hypnosis–to help her do so. As the two grow closer, the present collides with the past, and Samuel’s encounter with Ruby comes to serve as the means by which the man finally confronts the traumatic loss he suffered in his youth.
There’s much that fails to work in “Till Human Voices Wake Us.” Petroni’s script wants to create a mysterious, enigmatic atmosphere, but its tricks become obvious far too quickly, and his dialogue is frequently flowery and artificial. Worse, he stages everything in so lugubrious, dilatory a fashion that the flaws of the writing are magnified. (Even the luminous cinematography may have been a mistake, putting too much emphasis on style at the expense of dramatic urgency.) There’s also a decisive structural problem. While the scenes between the young Sam and Silvy have a certain shimmering, nostalgic glow–abetted by the engaging performances of Joyner and Herman–the contemporary elements seem stilted and tedious by comparison, and the denouement, meant to be mesmerizing, is merely drawn-out, ambiguous and faintly absurd. The performances by Pearce and Bonham Carter leave a good deal to be desired, too: he’s so formal and impassive that he attracts little sympathy, while she’s at her strident, overwrought worst. A more positive element is Dale Cornelius’ lush, evocative score; it might sound well on its own.
If it were compressed into twenty-three minutes or so, “Till Human Voices Wake Us” would still be little better than a low-grade “Twilight Zone” episode. The fact that it drones on for over a hundred minutes at a funereal pace, and concludes in a way that’s more likely to puzzle than to satisfy, makes it all the more frustrating.