Guy Pearce has an unforgettable presence -- hungry cheeks and a laser stare -- so why do directors keep casting him as a man who can barely remember what he ate for breakfast? In his latest film, "Till Human Voices Wake Us," Pearce plays a psychology professor who lectures on memory and forgetting. There are, Dr. Sam Franks explains to his students, two types of forgetting, the active and the passive. Like the characters Pearce played in "Memento" (where the forgetting was passive) and "The Time Machine" (where it was, well, forgettable), the doctor has his own problems with memory. Repressed or not, Franks' past is as vividly inscribed on his life as the tattoos Pearce wore in "Memento," from the tip of his Freudian goatee to the depths of his unmodulated murmur.
In the throes of emotional oblivion, Franks is a conceit in search of a personality. He doesn't recall his dreams, forgets to cry at his father's funeral and barely remembers to crack a smile, even when a beautiful stranger cruises him on a train. It's on his way to the Australian Outback to bury his father that the doctor first meets Ruby (Helena Bonham Carter). She retrieves his dropped book ("you've lost your place," she tells him), tenders an inviting smile, only to abruptly disappear. Soon afterward, in a coincidence that tips writer-director Michael Petroni's narrative hand, Franks is fishing Ruby out of a local river. As he tries to determine if she's a victim of an accident or a perpetrator, Ruby -- now suffering from amnesia -- tries to remember where she came from and why.
Petroni, who wrote last year's "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys," has a weakness for the overdetermined moment. The doctor isn't just buttoned-down; he's a head case. After his father dies, Franks is flooded by scenes from his adolescence when he was 15 (played by Lindley Joyner) and in love with Silvy (Brooke Harman), a local girl with a fondness for T.S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." (The film's title is taken from the poem's last line.) In flashbacks that look dipped in butterscotch, the adolescents leisurely meander through their lost innocence, interludes that work a loud and increasingly clanging counterpoint to scenes of the adults warily circling each other in the present. Memories and metaphors jostle against each other with such escalating force that by the time Franks sees Ruby slurping spoonfuls of preserved cherries at his kitchen table it's no surprise he's a goner -- the very movie has gone off the rails.
And not a minute too soon. However preposterous, the abrupt turn into the metaphysical at least shakes things up. What transpires doesn't make a bit of sense but Pearce and Bonham Carter, whose motors runs fast, aren't the sort of performers who should remain in idle for long. Kept in check by his character's neuroses, Pearce holds our attention throughout, but it isn't until near the end that he manages to break free of his character's and his director's inhibitions. In a brief monologue that echoes the love song of Prufrock, his murmur now transformed into a mellifluous lament, Pearce fashions a small epic of heartbreak. You may not believe the character for a second, but the actor keeps your faith like a promise.
`Till Human Voices Wake Us'
MPAA rating: R, for a scene of sexuality.
Times guidelines: The one sex scene is demure, but the scene in which Pearce swims in his underwear is pretty racy.
Guy Pearce...Dr. Sam Franks
Helena Bonham Carter...Ruby
Frank Gallacher...Maurice Lewis
Lindley Joyner...Young Sam Franks
Brooke Harman...Silvy Lewis
The Australian Film Finance Corp. and Key Entertainment present an Instinct Entertainment production, released by Paramount Classics. Director-writer Michael Petroni. Producers Shana Levine, Dean Murphy, Nigel Odell, David Redman, Matthias Emcke, Thomas Augsberger. Director of photography Roger Lanser. Editor Bill Murphy. Production designer Ralph Moser. Costume designer Jeanie Cameron. Sound design Michael Slater, Scott Findlay. Sound recordist John Wilkinson. Composer Amotz Plessner. Casting Maura Fay & Associates, Stewart Faichney. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
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