“For all its rhapsodic qualities, Till Human Voices Wake Us is not so much a poem as a riddle, and one of sphinx-like inscrutability at that.”
Supernatural mystery suffers from a lack of concrete clues
Till Human Voices Wake Us takes its name from a poem, “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock,” by T.S. Eliot. The poem relates the tale of a man looking back on his life with regret, which, not so coincidentally, is the underlying theme of the film.
As written and directed by Michael Petrioni, the movie never veers far from its literary inspiration. An ethereal atmosphere lingers over the lovely proceedings, which occur at a dreamlike pace against a setting so calculatedly magical – moonlit river, flitting insects, shooting stars – Eliot himself couldn’t have improved upon it.
And then, of course, there’s the poem itself. Quoted numerous times, it’s a recurring lyrical reference in a movie that strives to be cinematic poetry. But for all its rhapsodic qualities, Till Human Voices Wake Us is not so much a poem as a riddle, and one of sphinx-like inscrutability at that.
At the center of the mystery is Sam (Guy Pearce), a grim psychiatrist specializing in repressed memories who nevertheless doesn’t recognize his own hidden secrets. Returning to his hometown to bury his father, he meets the peculiar Ruby (Helena Bonham Carter) on a train. Wild-eyed and dazed, she sparks an unsettling fascination in Sam before hastily departing. Their paths cross again after an accident during a storm a few nights later, in which Ruby loses her memory, including all traces of her identity. As Sam endeavors to help the enigmatic Ruby find herself, long-buried memories of his own begin to resurface.
These recollections are revealed through a parallel story, told via flashbacks, depicting a young Sam (Lindley Joyner) falling in love with his best friend Sylvie (Brooke Harmon) during what would become the most fateful summer of his life. Although the burgeoning romance between them starts the season on a blissful note, a tragic accident abruptly ends the relationship, and with it, Sam’s boyhood innocence.
It’s clear to viewers from the onset that Ruby and Sylvie are one and the same, although it takes Sam a considerable amount of time to come to that conclusion. What isn’t apparent is the nature of Ruby herself. There’s little to indicate she’s a figment of Sam’s imagination, but as clues to the past are gradually revealed, bit by agonizingly protracted bit, it becomes a likely scenario.
But there’s no way of knowing for sure. Is Ruby real? If so, is she insane? Is she a ghost? A stress-induced hallucination? Maddeningly, the ambiguous ending provides little resolution. So, despite terrific performances, lush cinematography and a truly beautiful setting, Till Human Voices Wake Us ends up an ultimately unsatisfying brainteaser.
Michael Rucker writes for In Touch Weekly and HX Magazine and is a regular contributor to Gay City News. Reach him at MikeRucker@nyc.rr.com.