I have long been a fan of Guy Pearce, whose penchant for taking on small but meaningful roles has created one of the most diverse and surprising resumes for an actor of his caliber. Each week in 2020, I’ll be reviewing one of my Guy’s films, exploring just how wild his career has been.
T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock ends its neurotic ballad with the line, “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” The line makes a pretty good title for a movie, which seems to be why this one exists.
Sam (Guy Pearce) is a psychology professor in Melbourne, who we meet explaining repressed memories (oh, really?) to his class before receiving a phone call that his father has died in his hometown of Victoria. Sam’s return home requires him to reopen old wounds, and it’s made more complicated by a beautiful amnesiac woman named Ruby (Helen Bonham Carter) who reminds him of a lost love.
Writer-director Michael Petroni splits the narrative into halves: one featuring the adult Sam and Ruby and the other focusing on teenage Sam’s summer when he met Silvy, a local girl with whom he fell in love and later lost in a tragic drowning accident. Literally lost. The two would float together in a river, and one night he closed his eyes to wish upon a star only to find her gone when he opened them.
Adult Sam has enough brooding and self-pitying traits to feel like the protagonist of the work that so clearly inspired the story. Pearce — despite a dodgy goatee — sells his woeful disposition. Bonham-Carter’s character doesn’t expand into much more than a vessel for his story and his growth. The big hypnosis-to-uncover-repressed-memories development toward the conclusion of the story fits with the magical realism element of their interactions but burdens the emotional reality of Sam’s story.
Till Human Voices Wake Us shoots for poetry and fails. Ruby’s spectral presence plays out as an embodiment of Pearce’s traumatic memories of Silvy. Carter and Pearce sell the situation to such an extent that the childhood segments are unnecessary and boring exposition.
Silvy’s love of poetry is a character detail that feels inserted to insist a quality that doesn’t exist in the storytelling. Prufrock‘s self-flagellating melancholy remains eternally effective because it’s written so vividly and feels so genuine. Not that this was meant to be an adaptation, but it seems to have taken inspiration from surface-level emotions and nothing else. A shame.