Gothic horror appears to be an enticing yet elusive affectation for modern filmmakers. In the past two years, we’ve seen several auteurs offer big-budgeted, and decadently stylized, swings at the fading form with Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak and Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness. But neither truly connected. Now Eric D. Howell approaches the same idea with a refreshingly grounded (and more affordable) take in Voice from the Stone. Still, even with Emilia Clarke on hand to provide her well-known fire and blood fury from Game of Thrones, the picture is a rather cold viewing experience.
Set in 1950s Tuscany during a chilled and perpetually overcast autumn, Voice from the Stone makes the best of its Italian backdrop. Draped in the decaying grandeur of a medieval villa, the picture follows Clarke as Verena, a depressed nurse/nanny hybrid with a gloomy disposition. She appears to be running from something, although the film curiously never really explores what that something is. No matter, she is a bit of a cross between Mary Poppins and Joan Fontaine’s Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca when she arrives at a remote home deep in the wilderness of rural Italy.
She has been hired by a permanently sneering Klaus (Marton Csokas), the lord of the manor if not its master. For Klaus, as it turns out, is a frustrated artist who’s been further aggrieved by the death of his aristocratic wife (Caterina Murino) from about a year ago. In her absence, their son Jakob (Edward Dring) has elected never to speak again—he fears if he opens his mouth, the long dead mother will stop speaking to him from the walls. The same walls that are built from the thousand-year-old quarry stone in which his mother’s family made their money… and which lines her tomb in the crypt below the house.
… Of course, Verena does not believe that ghosts are enshrined in the architecture. That would be preposterous! Wouldn’t it?
Soon enough, Verena starts hearing the voice too. She also is increasingly encouraged by servant Lilia (Lisa Gastoni) to try on the dead mother’s clothing, almost as if to challenge the spirit to a custody battle. And even if Verena finds unexpected resistance in convincing young Jakob to let go of his mother’s specter, Klaus has no problem letting rotting bodies lie, particularly if he can have Verena’s nude one as a model for his sculptures.
The best aspect about Voice from the Stone is its relentless and often evocative atmosphere. Whereas other modern filmmakers have toiled at making breathtaking fantasies removed from our reality, there is something to be said about letting an old spooky house (or castle) stand for itself. Just as Hammer Studios in another lifetime mined the English countryside for its most grandly ghoulish vistas, Voice turns a picturesque setting into a land swimming in ghosts, whether they be in their running waters or atop battlements on which Jakob (and mama?) have some fun at Verena’s vertigo-induced expense.
Unfortunately, it is the film’s actual narrative shade where Voice from the Stone fails to enunciate its ideas. The picture certainly conjures some amusing echoes, creating a foundation that the likes of Edgar Allan Poe might have treasured: long lost raven haired beauties; art which drains the soul; and more than one allusion to the concept of being entombed alive.
Indeed, the third act is the perfect kind of capper to an exciting short story enthralled by the danse macabre. But this is more of a narrative bob than a waltz. Clarke is primarily serviceable as the expressive Verena, donning the right emotion to match the character’s evolving attire—she goes from dowdy nanny to ravishing lady throughout the course of the picture. She also more convincingly inhabits this caregiver role than her overeager earnestness in the faux-weepy Me Before You. Still, her film roles continue to leave something to be desired, and in this case it is a true character instead of a series of manic reactions.
Albeit, she fares better than poor young Dring who is left to stand idly by as the blank child, or Csokas’ Klaus, who seems as disinterested in his part as viewers may be with the film by its third act.
Further, the filmmakers never approach the kind of heady sense of spiritual dysequilibrium that the ending builds toward, and rather seem more preoccupied with titillation than terror. Even at only 94 minutes, the movie fails to propel toward its climax, preferring to instead amiably stumble into a fairly decent one.
In the end, Voice from the Stone is a pretty looking movie that has a commendable old school touch, but all that simmering atmosphere never once risks coming to a boil; it’s content to merely curdle into its lukewarm grave.