River of Dreams

Michael Petroni explores where we go Till Human Voices Wake Us

Emerging from Till Human Voices Wake Us, it was easy to overhear some male viewers striving to put the film's metaphysical themes in their place, to explain them away, as it were. This is a shame. The source of the story's mystique is fairly simple and may be obvious to many, but to attempt to straighten out the project's purposeful obscurity is to miss its whole point.

Our focus here is Sam (Guy Pearce), a stone-faced, VanDyke-bearded psychologist who returns to his small town in Victoria, Australia, to bury his father. En route via train, he encounters a mysterious woman named Ruby (Helena Bonham Carter), who just as suddenly vanishes. Once he's arrived at the site of his childhood, Sam steadfastly attends to domestic and funereal business, during which writer-director Michael Petroni intercuts flashbacks of Sam's younger self (astutely portrayed by newcomer Lindley Joyner). Gradually, the slick headshrinker emerges as his own case study.

Petroni, best known thus far for adapting for the screen last year's Queen of the Damned and Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, proves himself an instinctive and sensuous filmmaker. Atmosphere is favored above action as he lingers on extreme close-ups of poignant expressions or tiny details such as young Sam's widower father (Peter Curtin) capturing the likeness of a live Christmas beetle in pen and ink and revealing volumes by explaining that his art is just "to pass the time." This pacing may gnaw like a starved bandicoot at the patience of common moviegoers, but if a darkly dreamy, vaguely "midcentury" antipodal experience appeals, you'll be well served here.

Who's that girl? Helena Bonham Carter and Guy Pearce star in the mysterious Till Human Voices Wake Us.
Who's that girl? Helena Bonham Carter and Guy Pearce star in the mysterious Till Human Voices Wake Us.

As the elegant portraiture of Sam's life expands, we come to understand his emotional detachment. All clues lead back to the local river, where he and his best friend and budding romantic interest Silvy (Brooke Harman, also superb) languidly savor by day and night the reflections on the water, including their own. Much as in the early work of fellow Aussie John Duigan (The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting), there's magical realism afoot amid the promise of a first romance.

The thing is, despite Sam's fond memories (and an "old" sepia photo that looks, unfortunately, freshly printed), Silvy is long gone. Instead he's got this strange Ruby woman in his face again as she falls--or jumps?--into the same river on a stormy night. There's mud, there's sheets of rain, there's a desperate rescue, and then there's Ruby in Sam's bed as he sits vigilant in a comely wife-beater, ogling her exposed armpit and nervously clutching hand. With this porcelain beauty nearly drowning then moping frumpily about, you might suspect you're watching The Hours 2--God frickin' forbid!--but unlike in that likely Oscar hog, there's a good reason behind this shared sadness.

The real mystery is threefold: Why was this project shelved since 2001? Why does it bear an absurdly unmerited R rating? And where did Ruby come from? Only this last question bugged our audience. She awakens from her waterlogged trauma with acute amnesia--it's mildly amusing to watch the star of Memento helping her regain her memory (while thoughtfully keeping his horse teeth under control)--and thereafter she alternates between headstrong strides and desperate confusion. Her presence causes Sam to revisit elements of his youth--a lively folk dance, a mildly annoying word-association game, the home of an old crone who may have been a witch--and a wistful love emerges. Both Pearce and Bonham Carter possess obvious reservoirs of the sadness that leads to bad habits like smoking or acting, and their authority dismantles the whole origin question; Ruby just is.

Sometimes it's easy to spot an Anima on sight--that essential feminine aspect of males, most commonly lost (or violently snuffed) in adolescence. It's not too bombastic to say that this separation--and its subsequent longing--could be the cause of a plethora of woes, intimate and global. Bonham Carter very sagely symbolizes that loss that makes men close down. She may not do it for everyone, though at least she's dropped her "Paula Abdul" look from Planet of the Apes and indeed looks rather fetching backlit with a sanguine tint in her meticulously tousled locks.

There's a somber tone to Petroni's work here--enhanced by Roger Lanser's shadowy cinematography and handicapped a bit by a schmaltzy Hollywood-type score--and there's also plenty of episodic life stuff. From young Sam's induction into the practice of husbandry by Silvy's robustly Scots papa (a fine Frank Gallacher) to adult Sam's grown-up reappraisal of himself, the movie takes on the feel of poetry. This is fitting, since it draws heavily on T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," a rather scintillating work of life and depth that functions as a skeleton key to this film's lyricism.

 
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