Till Human Voices Wake Us (2001)

Directed by Michael Petroni

Emily Dyas



Director……………...….. Michael Petroni
Writer…………………… Michael Petroni
Cinematographer………... Roger Lanser
Producers………………... Thomas Augsberger
Shana Levine
Dean Murphy
Nigel Odell
David Redman
Production Company……. Instinct Entertainment

Principal Cast

Guy Pearce……………… Dr Sam Franks
Helena Bonham-Carter…. Ruby
Lindley Joyner………….. Young Sam Franks
Brooke Harmon…………. Silvy Lewis
Frank Gallacher…………. Maurie Lewis
Peter Curtin……………... Dr David Franks
Margot Knight………….. Dorothy Lewis

Release Dates

Australia………………… Melbourne 12 September 2002
Sydney 19 September 2002
USA……………………... Film By the Sea Film Festival 21 February 2003

Box Office Figures

I was unable to locate the Australian Box Office figures in time for the assignment. I did however locate the US figures.

Opening Weekend………. US$ 7, 968 (23 Feb)
Gross……………………. US$ 28, 145 (2 March)
US$ 47, 557 (9 March)

Bibliographical Details of Interviews with Filmmakers

Unable to locate any interviews.

Bibliographical Details of Reviews of the Film

Hunter, Chelsea, "Till Human Voices Wake Us" in Empire, Haymarket, EMAP Australia, October 2002, 19, p.40.

Sheehan, Paul, "Return of the Repressed", HQ, Darlinghurst, terraplanet.com, August 2002, 93, p.120.

Ryan, Michelle "Michael Petroni: Till Human Voices Wake Us", Metro Magazine, 2003, 134, p12.

Online Presence of the Film in the Web Literature

Official Sites


Both sites include star profiles, cast and crew lists, the latest information, story information, multimedia, theatre lists, news and reviews.

The internet movie database http://us.imdb.com provide the sites for a large list of internal and external reviews of the film. These included both Australian and international reviews.


From the information gathered above it can be seen that there is not an extensive range of material on Till Human Voices Wake Us in the Australian information landscape. I searched through recent journals, books and reference works in libraries, but I believe that the film is too recent and minor to have received much attention as yet. However Empire magazine did state that it was "a beautiful film that might become a classic" (Hunter, 2002, p.40), so one could expect the film to gain more critical attention in the future. Considering this, most print attention was found in film magazines and titles like HQ. I found the most effective search was not in a library but on the internet. By using the search engines www.yahoo.com
and www.google.com and the internet movie database http://us.imdb.com I located a large number of sites containing reviews of the film at the time of its release and detailed information about the film. Thus the limited amount of reference material I located was consistent with Till Human Voices Wake Us as a small Australian film with a limited release.

Till Human Voices Wake Us
A Critical Review of the Film and its Literature

Alas, when the Australian cinema depicts the early stages of love, that period when attraction is kindled and affairs are born, it is generally the first stop on a journey that concludes with the demise of the relationship. There are very few lovers who walk hand in hand into the sunset at the end of a film.

(Enker, 1994, p.220)

Let us go then, you and I

T.S. Eliot from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Australian filmmaking has a rich and varied history. With the 1990s and the new century Australian cinema has experienced a new kind of internationalism which sees many of the films produced displaying a "cosmopolitanism interested not so much in what separates Australia from the world but in their commonalities" (O'Regan, 1996, p.5), especially after the 'ocker' films of the 1970s and the genre films of the 1980s. Made in 2001 and released in 2002, Till Human Voices Wake Us is the feature film debut from director Michael Petroni. The film was quietly released in a limited number of cinemas around Australia and in festivals around the world. It is a film which is somewhat unusually located in the critical and market horizons of Australian film and its position relative to Australian national cinema. In this essay I will critique the film through an examination of the cultural and filmic boundaries in which it exists. The critical uptake of the film and the circumstances of its release and box office help to determine the position and value of the film in Australia and where the film is situated as a part of our national cinema. Thus I will show how the internationalism present in Australian film today has created a process of cultural transfers with international and other national cinemas. Till Human Voices Wake Us helps to construct our national identity – which is constantly being renegotiated and reconstructed through our national cinema.

In Till Human Voices Wake Us Michael Petroni has created a ghost story, a supernatural love story, a genre of film which has not often appeared in Australian cinema. The film follows a man who, upon return to his home town, rescues a mysterious woman who has lost her memory. Upon their encounter it appears that the woman is the reincarnation of his childhood love, whom he lost 20 years earlier. The film is set in the Victorian countryside, where in the fictional town of Genoa, a 15 year old Sam Franks has returned home from school to his preoccupied father and empty house. He finds solace in Silvy, a slightly physically disabled girl, and the beauty of the river which runs through the town. Sam is lost in nature, whilst Silvy demonstrates a passion for art, indicated through the film's many references to the T.S. Eliot poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" http://algol.cs.amherst.edu/~ccm/prufrock.html from which the film's title is taken "Till human voices wake us and we drown".

From this, viewers with knowledge of the poem should predict the tragedy which will befall the young pair. On the brink of a sexual and romantic awakening, the film draws on a theme often explored in Australian films, "the twosome and the sleepy country-town ambience recall The Year My Voice Broke (1987)" (Sheehan, 2002, p.120). However, Sam and Silvy are not meant to be, they leave the local dance and wander down to the river. Sam removes Silvy's leg braces so she can for the first time swim in the river under the stars. Despite the tentative but passionate kiss they share the scene is clouded by a sense of dread, an example of how "Australian cinema seems skeptical about the capacity of love, and particularly passion, to endure. And even when it flickers for a while, it generally dies" (Enker, 1994, p.220). This is literally explored in the case of this film, for whilst gazing at shooting stars, Silvy slips away from Sam and disappears into the water. Silvy's body is never found "and so, metaphorically, Sam's grieving can never begin" (Sheehan, 2002, p.120).

The strength and tenderness of their relationship and Silvy's unresolved death have haunted Sam for the last 20 years, his determination to bury the memory conveying when he hides her braces with a dead bird in her secret spot. Sam is now a psychologist, teaching in Melbourne. He tells one of his students that "there are two types of forgetting: passive and active", the latter indicating Sam's case and the intention of the second half of the story – for him to grieve and find redemption from the guilt he feels for the loss of his friend. When he reluctantly returns to Genoa to bury his father he meets a mysterious woman named Ruby on the train. She tells him that he has "lost his place". The woman suddenly vanishes only to appear again on a bridge during a storm. The river is swollen, creeping into the town when Sam spies her in the water and rescues her from drowning. The parallelism of the two stories instantly links the young Sam and Silvy to the adult Sam and Ruby, leaving no real mystery to the story. The audience instantly recognizes that the amnesiac Ruby is the reincarnation or the ghost of Silvy. From the international reviews of the film I found that it was cut differently in America, instead of the two separate tales, of childhood and then adulthood, the film intercuts between the revealing Sam and Silvy's childhood in flashback, a choice which for the viewer robs the film of the tension and mystery the story needs to propel it forward. Sam cannot see that Ruby is the adult doppelganger of Ruby, whilst it is all too apparent to the viewer, thus ultimately creating a frustrating narrative. In both version though, Pearce's portrayal of Sam as "emotionally stoic, holding in 20 years of anguish" (2002, p.120), the typically desolate country town in which the story is set leaves the viewer with a longing for the vibrant relationship the young actors create, whilst the adult section of the narrative seems static and detatched.

Considering this, it seems that perhaps Petroni intended to construct the film as a cathartic journey rather that a tense ghost story. He has warned against viewing the film as a supernatural tale, as evident in the beautiful cinematograhpy which lingers on the landscape, foregrounding not "the supernatural but the natural" (2002, p.120). Till Human Voices Wake Us is a film which seems to take its departure from traditional Australian cinema – the unpopulated, isolated country town is instantly recognizable, expressing the landscape tradition of our national cinema:

The barely populated continent has been figured as a paradox – half-tamed, yet essentially untamable; concealing social subsistence, yet never allowing human dominance. Because it has been presented as so tantalising and so essentially unknowable-yet-lovable, the land has become the structural center of the nation's myth of belonging.

(Gibson, 1992, p.67)

Silvy is taken by nature, the river, its unforgiving yet beautiful presence is the central motif of the film. Silvy/Ruby is returned to Sam through the river and ultimately at the end of the film Sam finds his forgiveness by bathing in the river with Ruby is the boat her father built. It is her she vanishes for the final time. The film utilises the landscape as a means for Sam to renegotiate with his own grief – it is through the land that Silvy is taken – and through the land that Sam is reborn.

Till Human Voices Wake Us works to reinforce the myth of the landscape and asserts "both Australia's difference from the rest of the world and also the nation's singularity of constitution within its own boundaries " (1992, p.69). The film has had a mixed critical uptake since its release. Being a low budget art film and released at a similar time to the high profile crime capers Dirty Deeds (2002) and The Hard Word (2002) the film did not receive a large amount of attention. Small articles and reviews appeared in magazines such as Empire, HQ and Metro Magazine and there was quite a large presence of reviews online. International reviews were mixed, with many reviewers finding the story slow and the considered direction and overt symbolism pretentious. Conversely, Australian reviewers often seemed to consider the film a return to the 1970s quality films. The literary grounding of the script, the use of international actors and the personal narrative are reminiscent of films such as My Brilliant Career (1979) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), films which are "intrinsically Australian but thematically have international subjects" (McElroy in O'Regan, 1996, p.13).

Although considered a 'quality' Australian film, it limited release meant that it received only a reasonable critical uptake at the time. The themes of loss, grief, catharsis and the centrality of the landscape to the film validate "the historicity and Australianness of the characters" (O'Regan. 1996, p.15) thus making the film culturally and critically relevant for some critics. However, these same factors mark Till Human Voices Wake Us as nostalgic and perhaps too old-fashioned for many audiences in an industry dominated by Hollywood cinema "where characters win against the odds and achieve their goals…rather than static, passive, purposeless and anecdotal" (1996, p.17) stories, with characters, like Sam and Ruby, who are distanced from the contemporary world. From this it can be seen why the film did not receive much critical attention at the time, and subsequently.

For Michael Petroni, Till Human Voices was his feature film debut as a director. The screenplay, written while he studied at the American Film Institute, won two awards: the AFI's Screenplay of the Year award and the WGA Scenario Magazine Award for Best New Screenplay, both in 1996. The film was produced five year later, however I was unable to find material detailing the production. When it was released in 2002, it only appeared on a small number of independent and arthouse cinema screens for a few short weeks. As I was unable to access the Urbancinefile website I could not locate the Australian box office figures, but can estimate that the earning were quite small. In the United States the film was first released at the Film By the Sea festival in 2003 and then on limited release around the country. The US box office figures, US$47, 557 gross, demonstrate how Australian films are considered in Hollywood, "launched within art cinemas and cultural TV markets" (1996, p.13), considered as festival or foreign films.

Prior to Till Human Voices, Petroni directed a short film Trespasses (1999), wrote the screenplay for the Anne Rice vampire film Queen of the Damned (2002), filmed in Australia and then The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys (2002), an American feature produced by and starring Jodie Foster. Whilst he has not directed any more features, he appears to be a talented and original screenwriter. Despite the relative unknown creators of the film, Petroni still managed to secure the talents of well-known Australian actor Guy Pearce, who is currently enjoying Hollywood success with the ground-breaking film Memento (2000) and blockbusters such a The Count of Monte Cristo (2001), Rules of Engagement (2000) and LA Confidential (1997). Starring opposite him is Helena Bonham-Carter who after her string of bodice-ripping roles (Oscar nominated for Wings of the Dove (1997), has chosen to appear in off-beat but culturally resonant role in Fight Club (1999) and Planet of the Apes (2001). The attachment of these two stars situates the film under both a local and international gaze, their presence in this 'festival' film "naturalises the local as internationally acceptable just as it provides a space to one side of the mainstream Hollywood competition" (O'Regan, 1996, p.62). Thus as a 'quality' art film, Till Human Voices raised its profile by achieving "the balance between art and entertainment" (O'Regan, 1996, p.14) which is required for the success of our national cinema in a local and international market.

Considering the critical uptake and that the film's place on contemporary critical and market horizons was limited at its release, the film is an indicator of the general position of Australian cinema and its value in the world film milieu. Despite the international success of Crocodile Dundee (1986), Mad Max (1979) and recently The Adventures of Priscilla – Queen of the Desert (1994) and Dirty Deeds (2002), much of the cinema produced in this country is considered as festival cinema, a national cinema, to international markets and even incidental, marginal compared to Hollywood, to most Australians. Till Human Voices occupies the space of the Other, of non-Hollywood cinema. Festival cinema, although marginal compared to its Hollywood counterpart (1996, p.65) is not in existence merely to counter it, "they are sustained and shaped by local purposes of social, economic, cultural and national nature" (1996, p.65). Thus Petroni's film, although a local festival film takes part in cultural transfers, borrowing from and being borrowed by international cinemas.

The national identity produced in Till Human Voices Wake Us is determined in relation to its position in a medium- sized English language cinema. Thus Australia's national cinema has the increased possibility for international export and audience accessibility as it faces fewer language barriers, like the German, Dutch and French national cinemas. However this in turn demands higher standards of production for Australian films to compete with other Anglophone cinemas. The film is also a product of the medium sized industry in Australia which means it "cannot as easily differentiate itself through either, producing a sufficient volume of suitable product or readily occupying a market niche" (1996, p.90). Australian films are thus defined by their ordinariness, the art film sensibilities of Till Human Voices are explored "characters who are marked by their ordinariness and who are confined to their immediate social environment which they negotiate, are affected by, but themselves rarely effect" (O'Regan, 1996, p.15). The central relationship of Sam and Silvy/Ruby is enacted through the beautiful yet mundane Australian landscape. It is through the myth of the landscape that Australian cinema tries to differentiate itself and its national identity to the world. The reinforcement of this myth in a contemporary film such as this limits the potential of the film, reinforcing a national identity that is old-fashioned and out-dated.

Till Human Voices Wake Us uses the landscape in a way which countless films have before;

[k]nowingly or unknowingly, they are all engaging with the dominant mythology of white Australia. They are all partaking of the landscape tradition which, for two hundred years, has been used by white Australians to promote a sense of the significance of European society in "the antipodes"

(Gibson, 1992, p.64)

Thus Till Human Voices Wake Us reinforces a national identity of a white Australia, with no social or cultural memory of Aboriginal or ethnic cultures. The film ignores the diverse and constantly changing cultures which thrive in Australia – contemporary issues of multiculturalism, sexuality, the changing roles of masculinity and femininity, and economic factors are left untouched. The characters and the film seem to inhabit a space untouched by the rest of the world, just like the sleepy town the story is set in. The ghostly love story continues the Australian national cinemas fascination with the land, insisting that we do belong, yet focusing "on the spaces that separate people, on communities that stifle the spirit and circumstances that drive lovers apart" (Enker, 1994, p.225). The film is both traditional and nostalgic, produced from a medium sized English language national cinema which is increasingly dependent on internationalization. Till Human Voices Wake Us is an antiopodal cinema, "associated with cultural values – aesthetically an art or quality cinema and culturally in the sense of the all too mundane national culture" (O'Regan, 1996, p.100). Thus as the film does not attempt to renegotiate the myths and symbols of Australian culture, it can only reinforce them becoming a 'quality' art film, both poaching from the internationalism and the quaint, retro Australian art film.

The uncanny…a reminder of a traumatic event that's been willfully forgotten; or in the classic Freudian expression, …the 'return of the repressed'

(Sheehan, 2002, p.120)
The uncanny is indeed the subject of Till Human Voices Wake Us is a nostalgic piece of national cinema from director Michael Petroni. It is a film which is both produced by the context of the cinematic culture in Australia and in turn produces it. Our national identity is reinforced through our national myths and icons, but as we can see in this film, the increasing cosmopolitanism in the film industry demands a constant renegotiation of the identity we expose to the world through our national storytelling. The history of our nation should not be repressed from our minds or in our films, we must be sure that the Australian national identity we project to the world is one we wish to maintain.


Enker, D (1994) "Australia and the Australians" in Murray, S (ed) Australian Cinema, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, pp211-225.

Gibson, R (1992) "The nature of the nation: landscape in Australian feature films" in Gibson, R (ed) South of the West, University of Indiana Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, pp.63-81.
O'Regan,T (1996) Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London.

O'Regan, T (1996) "Film in the 1970s" Murdoch University, pp.1-22
Available on World Wide Web URL: http://www.mmc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/film/OzFilm.html
Accessed on 15 December 1998

Sheehan, P "Return of the Repressed" in HQ, Darlinghurst, terraplanet.com, August 2002, 93, p120.