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D: Eric Dennis Howell / 90m

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Marton Csokas, Caterina Murino, Remo Girone, Lisa Gastoni, Edward George Dring

There’s a whole other sub-section of the movies where English or American actors and actresses take roles that are shot in foreign locations with a foreign crew, and often their presence is there to ensure a decent enough showing in the international market. A lot of these movies, however, don’t always get the exposure they need, and head straight for DVD or VOD. Some manage to get into cinemas but they rarely make much of an impact, and often see out a week’s residency without too much fuss and bother. One such movie is Voice from the Stone, which since its world premiere at the Minneapolis-St Paul International Film Festival on 20 April this year, has made it onto the big screen in only five countries so far (six if you include its appearance at this year’s UK FrightFest). So how does this movie fare against all the others?

Without deliberately invoking this blog’s favourite i-word, Voice from the Stone proves largely disappointing, and for a number of reasons. The basic premise is ideal for setting up a semi-Gothic mystery thriller, but somewhere along the way, Howell’s interpretation of Andrew Shaw’s screenplay (itself an adaptation of Silvio Raffo’s novel La Voce Della Pietra), jettisons the idea of playing the obvious mystery elements – is grief-stricken son Jakob (Dring) really hearing the voice of his dead mother, Malvina (Murino), in the walls of his Tuscan villa home? – in order to focus on the nature of grief and the (not too) dark places it can lead us to. There’s Jakob’s grief, the grief his father, Klaus (Csokas), is dealing with, and then to a lesser extent, there’s the grief that Verena (Clarke) is feeling. Verena is a nurse who tends to sick children in their homes, and each time her work is done, it becomes harder and harder to leave, such is the emotional connections she makes as part of her approach to caring for the children in her charge.

Jakob was with his mother when she died, and had stayed by her bedside almost all throughout her illness. Since then he hasn’t said a word, whether through choice (as an expression, excuse the pun, of his grief), or something more sinister. The fact that he listens to the walls, and seems to be hearing his dead mother’s voice, is excused by his father as the boy’s way of dealing with his sadness. But Verena sees it as much more dangerous to Jakob’s emotional health, and in an initially oblique way, begins to challenge his behaviour. She’s encouraged in this by Lilia (Gastoni), Malvina’s mother, who is confident that Verena can get Jakob to talk. But although Verena slowly begins to make headway in bringing Jakob out of his grief, the dynamic within the villa starts to shift around her, and she finds she can no longer trust all that she believed when she first arrived…

Annoyingly, Voice from the Stone sets itself up as a slow-paced, methodical thriller that’s big on atmosphere and rich in emotional detail. However, while it never promises startling revelations along the way, what it does do is morph ever so slowly into a static drama that can’t make much of the few dramatic incidents that the script sets up. A visit to the family mausoleum should be disquieting but avoids making an impact by having its heroine behave as if she’s seeing ghosts that aren’t there, and a potentially frightening dream sequence is undermined by the way in which it’s staged. And despite Clarke’s best efforts, the character of Verena doesn’t convey the necessary depth that would allow the viewer to care about her predicament. The same is true of Csokas’ one-minute-guarded, the next-minute-approachable reading of Klaus, a grieving husband whose personality and demeanour lacks consistency, and who occupies a kind of there-when-the-script-needs-him-to-be middle ground that keeps the character from engaging with the viewer.

Shaw’s screenplay becomes increasingly erratic the longer the movie goes on, and there are a couple of jarring shifts in the narrative, along with a dramatic development involving a piece of sculpture that Klaus is working on, that nudges the story along but so unconvincingly you might be wondering if there’s a reel missing. There’s also a “surprise” that some viewers will have spotted a mile off, and which, when it’s revealed, has all the impact of being slapped with a damp tissue. As for the mystery of the voice in the walls, the script settles for being ambiguous when it needs to be more definitive (otherwise it’s a mystery with no payoff, and how much fun are they?). And the ending, when it comes, proves just as underwhelming as what’s gone before, though it does at least avoid throwing in a cheap twist to round things off or to try and set up a potential sequel.

With Shaw’s screenplay suffering from a number of fatal flaws, matters aren’t helped by Howell’s turn in the director’s chair. Only his second feature since From Heaven to Hell in 2002 (check out its cast), Voice from the Stone soon proves itself to be a challenge that Howell, a former stuntman, isn’t able to overcome. There are too many scenes that are flat and drearily composed, and the flow of the movie is stalled time and time again by decisions made in the editing suite, decisions that stop the movie from gaining any traction when it needs to, and stop it from being anything other than a chore to sit through for much of its running time. Clarke tries her best to get a good grip on the character of Verena but is unable to because her character makes too many random, unsupported choices, while Csokas is left to fashion a performance from too few clues and too few insights. And Dring, as the silent Jakob, can only frown a lot or remain passive, something he does well, but it’s not necessarily a recommendation of his performance, rather a drawback he can’t defeat. The movie is also unattractive to watch for the most part, too often dimly lit (even the exteriors) and attempting to provide itself with some atmosphere by doing so.

Rating: 4/10 – undercooked and underwhelming, Voice from the Stone is a movie that offers little in the way of satisfactory viewing, and only occasionally rises above the mundane handling of the material; a thriller that doesn’t thrill and with a mystery that’s never solved one way or the other, this is one for Emilia Clarke completists only, or viewers willing to give it the benefit of the doubt – though it would be hard to understand why.

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