"Till Human Voices Wake Us" is exactly the kind of movie that doesn't get made in America anymore, which is a pity.
This Australian film, largely inspired by the poetry of T.S. Eliot, is vivid, beautiful, small, undeniably minor, but undeniably affecting as well. It's a ghost story without a scare in it, one that conveys a kind of nostalgic lyricism as it contemplates the beauty of what might have been as opposed to the squalor of what was.
The concluding line to the refrain of the title (from Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock") is "and we drown." And the movie is about a literal drowning and a metaphorical one: as in, living a life without passion, progress or purpose.
Guy Pearce plays Sam Franks, a Melbourne psychiatrist who knows everything about the human mind except what is going on inside his own. When his father dies, he learns that the old man has left instructions that he be buried in Victoria, an inland town where the father, a doctor himself, once practiced and where Sam grew up. Sam is reluctant to return with the body for the funeral, however, and it hardly surprises us: He is one of those closed-off men, precise and polite, seemingly in command -- yet masking, we sense, some gulf of blackness.
As is so often the case in movies, the trip to the interior of the continent is also a trip backward, in time; as Sam returns to his rural home town, memories flood him. Yet at the same time he's met a strange young woman calling herself Ruby (Helena Bonham Carter, and if you're like me, you just thought oh no!), to whom he is powerfully attracted, as she clearly is to him. But Carter, whose brand of flamboyant narcissism has grown tiresome, gives this flamboyant narcissist a quieter personality.
Sam remembers the key relationship of his childhood, with an enchanting young woman named Silvy, a poetry-quoting free spirit whose mind was as liberated as her legs were locked in polio braces. The movie progresses on two fronts: Sam trying to figure out the enigma of Ruby, even as he's falling in love with her; and young Sam (Lindley Joyner) enjoying the presence of Silvy (Brooke Harmon), realizing that he's falling in love with her, too.
To say more is to give too much away, so fragile is the vessel that is "Till Human Voices Wake Us." But the film, written and directed by Michael Petroni, a first-time director but an experienced screenwriter, is a poetic whimsy whose lyricism is reflected in the delicacy of its cinematography. The movie is like a poem, Eliot's or otherwise: It suggests, it communicates in images, it is an essay in the uses of incisiveness and ambiguity. Like the best of poems, it doesn't lend itself to easy understanding. But, like the best of poems, it's extremely provocative, to both imagination and intellect.
Till Human Voices Wake Us (101 minutes, at the Inner Circle) is rated R for sexuality.