Deep in a dark Tuscan forest is an isolated Gothic castle where the overgrowth of ivy turns as red as a butcher’s floor each fall. It’s the sort of haunting place where a gentle, unmarried nurse might seek employment as a live-in caregiver back in 1950s Italy.
In the visually superb romantic thriller “Voice From the Stone,” Verena (Emilia Clarke) does exactly that. A specialist with a gift for taking troubled children under her wing, she arrives to help Klaus (Marton Csokas), a brooding sculptor, with his son Jakob (Edward Dring). The boy quit speaking after the death of his beloved mother Malvina (portrayed in flashback scenes by Caterina Murino), whose spirit still occupies the manor through photographs and journals.
Having lost his muse, Klaus has ceased chiseling life-size nudes. Surely it would be an easy, simple task for Verena to tend both son and father at once, wouldn’t it? Since that act of compassion might help lighten her somewhat heavy spirit, surely it would be a gift for all.
Playing a more-mature character than she has done before, Clarke gives a convincing performance as the sturdy but vulnerable heroine. Verena is a woman whose commitment to being a healer is matched only by her mix of attraction and disquiet in her new home.
The morbid, lived-in looking mansion is one of the movie’s main stars, telling us more about the characters than mere dialogue can convey. In lean, mean style, Csokas plays a blocked artist who married his way into the aristocracy. Is he dark-eyed and aloof from the pain of loss, a social climbing commoner’s pangs of guilt, or because he’s up to nefarious acts? And what about Alessio (Remo Girone), the possibly duplicitous groundskeeper?
Eric D. Howell’s detail-conscious feature directing debut keeps us guessing. Adapted from an acclaimed novel by Italy’s Silvio Raffo, it defies attempts to classify it as a love story, a ghost story or a family story. The film is a mystery pieced together with high style by a skilled illusionist.
As she gradually comes to know the father and son, Verena discovers secrets and traits that becloud her good efforts. Jakob believes that Mama, an opera star, now whispers to him through the manor’s massive masonry walls. He is drawn to stand on the precipice of the dangerously tall castle towers. Klaus can be frosty enough to raise goose bumps. Then Verena begins hearing Malvina’s voice, as well. And she thinks that the castle’s aged servant woman Lilia (Lisa Gastoni) is offering her wise counsel when she tells Verena to slip on items of Malvina’s sleek wardrobe and model them for Klaus.
There’s a rare, refreshing level of Old World class here, a willingness to tell a story that draws viewers into anxiety while sparing them red fountains of gore. Stephen King long ago replaced Edgar Allan Poe as America’s favorite merchant of supernatural chills, yet there’s a touch of the old master in Howell’s work.
The mood is restrained, with few boo scares, but an unyielding sense of uncertainty. Drawing inspiration from Poe’s tales of bodies entombed in brick walls, the macabre romances of Alfred Hitchcock and coldly charismatic magnetism of midlife Marcello Mastroianni, it is ripe with atmosphere and suspense.
Grammy-winning singer/pianist Amy Lee draws the film’s final curtain with an operatic ballad that leaves behind the guitar attacks and driving percussion of her multiplatinum goth rock band Evanescence.
Lee’s composition, “Speak to Me,” reprises the film’s themes and sensibilities, covering the end credits with a musical frisson of sweet melancholy. The song creates an impression of lucid consistency that the question-rich story lacks. It’s the sort of attention-grabbing work that earns best original song nominations.