Till Human Voices Wake Us

(Michael Petroni, Australia, 2002)


With its opening views of small town life set to wistful strings, Till Human Voices Wake Us seems like a throwback to that cycle of sedate, rural Australian films stretching from The Mango Tree (1977) to The Year My Voice Broke (1987).

But, pretty soon, debut writer-director Michael Petroni lets us know that he has his own agenda. The youthful conversations between Sam (Lindley Joyner) and the disabled Silvy (Brooke Harman) abound with references to poetry and romanticism, dreams and death. Silvy's garrulous father, Maurie (Frank Gallacher), waxes on about soul, spirit and the life force inherent in nature.

A catastrophe catapults the plot into the future. The adult Sam (Guy Pearce) has become a rather withdrawn and alienated psychotherapist. He claims not to dream, and guides his troubled patients to say "I think" rather "I feel". Sam, clearly, is living in denial.

On a train ride back to the small town of his youth, Sam encounters Ruby (Helena Bonham Carter). She turns out to be the kind of free spirit who runs barefoot in the woods and always asks disarming questions. But not until she has survived her own near-catastrophe, falling (or is it jumping?) off a bridge.

With its echoes of the most agonised Hollywood romances, like Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and Henry Hathaway's Peter Ibbetson (1935), and even of Kenji Mizoguchi's classic ghost tale Ugetsu (1953), Till Human Voices Wake Us strives to be a metaphysical rumination on those Jungian shadow realms between life and death. As such, it is virtually unique in Australian cinema. Better still, it has the courage of its convictions.

The film does have its problems, most of them familiar from the work of first-time feature directors. Eschewal of the sorts of mystery-thriller complications that powered Vertigo or The Sixth Sense (1999) results in a thin plot that often seems like an anecdotal, short story stretched out interminably. The figure of Ruby, especially, could have done with a little more intrigue.

Much of the dialogue is overwritten, laboriously spelling out every dramatic metaphor and literary allusion. Petroni overuses the cliché of water as the symbolic place of death and rebirth.

On the positive side, however, the film offers a rare example of lyricism in Australian cinema. The night scenes shot in and around Castlemaine possess a delicate, haunting quality. Editor Bill Murphy finds a satisfying rhythm for the often plotless succession of vignettes (especially in the second half). The musical score by Dale Cornelius, although laid on a little heavily at times, is for the most part poignant and effective.

The entire film is suffused with the kind of yearning ache that I associate with such fine movies as Robert Mulligan's The Man in the Moon (1991). Till Human Voices Wake Us is an admirable, low-budget achievement in a local production slate that is often overburdened with formulaic thrillers and comedies.

© Adrian Martin September 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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