Film Reviews: Wednesday, March 6, 2003
The Last Wave

Guy Pearce receivesa woman as a memento in Till Human Voices Wake Us.


You need to be prepared for the Australian drama Till Human Voices Wake Us, because if you go into the movie in the wrong frame of mind or expecting the wrong thing, you’ll end up terrifically bored. Heck, maybe you’ll be bored anyway. This slow-moving, occasionally abstruse film is structured as a whodunit, and it pays off with a rather banal revelation about repressed memories. Despite that, the movie isn’t entirely unrewarding. You just need the patience to work through some stuff, as the film’s main character has to.

That’d be Sam Franks (Guy Pearce), an emotionally frozen psychology professor in Melbourne who returns to his hometown of Genoa — not the Italian city, but a rural town located about six hours from Melbourne — for his father’s funeral. This is where the movie’s two parallel stories begin. In one, Sam meets a woman named Ruby (Helena Bonham Carter) on the train to Genoa. After reaching his destination, he goes driving on a rainy night and sees Ruby fall or jump into the Genoa River from a railroad trestle. He pulls her out of the water, and when she comes to, she can’t remember her name or how she got there. The memories she gradually recovers, however, are disturbingly familiar to Sam. This leads into the other story, told in flashback, as young Sam (Lindley Joyner) is reared by a widowed father (Peter Curtin) who’d rather sit in his study and draw elaborate sketches of beetles than talk to his son. Needing affection, the boy falls in love with a girl named Silvy (Brooke Harman) who has braces on her legs and a fondness for T.S. Eliot’s poetry.

What happened that turned the shy, sensitive boy into the closed-off man he now is? That becomes the question, although Sam is trying to uncover Ruby’s past. He plays word association games with her, puts her under hypnosis, and at night takes long walks with her along country roads that are laden with symbolism — trees, water, insects all seem freighted with metaphorical meaning. A crazy old lady known to young Sam and Silvy as the local bogeyman turns up as a corpse in the present day. Through it all, Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” gets quoted extensively in the dialogue. The meaning of all this may be clearer to Australian audiences, but for those of us who are unfamiliar with the uses of nature symbolism in Australian literature and drama, this film may come across as frustratingly obscure. Casual moviegoers will probably be stuck waiting for something concrete to happen.

That’d be understandable, but it’d also be a mistake. Concentrate too much on where the story’s headed, and you’ll miss the best thing about the movie — its remarkable handling of the relationship between Silvy and young Sam. Australian-born and U.S.-trained Michael Petroni displayed a talent for the freshness and hesitancy of adolescents in love as a co-writer on last year’s The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. He does the same thing here, in his debut as a director. He and cinematographer Roger Lanser do wonders with moonlight, using it to give the flashbacks a magical sheen that contrasts with the cold light cast on the present-day story. The natural scenery is specific to Australia’s bush country rather than the outback (it was shot on location not in Genoa but in Castlemaine and Goulburn River National Park), and it helps give the film a unique look. Petroni also gets admirable results out of the two young actors, Joyner and Harman, whose chemistry together is good enough that their half of the film is more involving than the half that has the international stars in it. In comparison, Pearce and Bonham Carter seem stranded by their roles.

Till Human Voices Wake Us is a film of modest but real achievements, but more than that, it shows that we’re quite a distance away from the mid-1990s. That’s when Australian cinema was known for outrageous and defiantly individualistic movies, many of them comedies. These days, however, the pendulum appears to have swung back, as movies such as this one and Ray Lawrence’s Lantana are at the forefront of a new seriousness that’s reminiscent of the country’s cinematic old guard (think of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave). I’m not sure this is such a good thing. To be sure, Australian filmmakers shouldn’t shy away from serious subjects — Rabbit-Proof Fence needed to be made — but if there are still films like Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, P.J. Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding, Stephan Elliot’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and George Miller’s Babe being made, they’re not reaching us. As precious and frivolous as movies like those could be (think of Scott Hicks’ Shine), the best ones weren’t just funnier than their successors, but more stylistically diverse and, yes, intellectually deeper. It’d be nice to know that that gloriously immature comic spirit was still kicking around Down Under.

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