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film: All Wet

"Till Human Voices Wake Us" offers a dreamy rendering of the Aussie bush, but its lack of drama will soon have moviegoers yawning.


A master of this genre, Sir Alfred Hitchcock instinctively knew how to hook an audience and then keep reeling them in slowly. Stop for a second and recall Hitchcock's "Vertigo." Lately, however, that ability seems to have been co-opted by a handful of Australian directors. Look at Nicolas Roeg's "Don't Look Now," for example, or Peter Weir's "Picnic at Hanging Rock." Not by coincidence do I invoke the memory of those three films and their directors; Aussie filmmaker Michael Petroni credits them as influencing his new supernatural romance, "Till Human Voices Wake Us."

Unfortunately, while filmmaker Petroni knows what he wants to emulate, he doesn't get it right. In fact, he tips his hand almost from the start. Adding insult to injury, Petroni seems to take forever to give it all up. Despite its 97-minute running time, "Till Human Voices Wake Us" feels twice that long.

Moody and murky, "Till Human Voices Wake Us" stars Guy Pearce and Helena Bonham Carter as two strangers who meet on a train traversing the Australian bush. Pearce is Sam Franks, a psychiatrist who is desperately in need of a doctor himself. Distant and withdrawn, he prefers to keep to himself, passing the time listening to classical music or working crossword puzzles. Bonham Carter plays Ruby, an ethereal waiflike woman with bright red lips, unnaturally pale skin, a wild tangle of hair, but for some unfathomable reason, a demeanor that isn't anywhere as mysterious as it should be.

Petroni intercuts Sam and Ruby's initial encounter and subsequent involvement with flashbacks of Sam's earlier and happier life at the age 15. Young Sam (Lindley Joyner) grew up in a small Australian country town, and the summer of his 15th year was a momentous one, made so by a neighbor girl named Silvy (Brooke Harman).

The two spent that idyllic summer engaged in playing word games, sharing poetry — both adored T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock," from whence comes the movie's awkward title — and taking late-night swims full of kisses and newfound passions. This, until that awful day when Silvy vanished beneath the waves, never to resurface. Drowning with her were all of Sam's hopes and dreams.

It is at this point that Petroni seems not to have noticed that most in the audience are savvy moviegoers and can predict where a movie is heading long before the writer or director wants them to. Although Petroni blithely moves ahead as if most have not figured out his no-longer-startling conclusion, most will find themselves wondering just how Pearce could go from the truly innovative "Memento" to this.

While Pearce's Sam deals with the mixed emotions of returning home to bury his father, Bonham Carter's Ruby comes to the proverbial end of her rope. So, as often only happens in the movies, one dark and stormy night finds Sam saving Ruby from drowning after she leaps from a railway trestle. And as happens in practically every soap opera ever aired, Ruby awakes from her ordeal suffering with amnesia. Sam now becomes obsessed with trying to figure out just who this strange woman is and why she's in town.

While the two young actors portraying Sam and Silvy are delightfully believable, the chemistry between Pearce and Bonham Carter is less than zero. In the end, those human voices aren't just attempting to rouse Pearce and Bonham Carter from their lethargic performances, it's your inner moviegoer begging you to find a better movie next time. **

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