In Eric D. Howell’s adaptation of Silvio Raffo’s ghostly 1996 novel, Voice From the Stone, a timid woman finds employment as a nanny with a rural family ravaged by grief. The longer she stays in their cavernous, stone-and-stucco villa, the more she comes to act, talk and look like the family’s dead matriarch.
Few vintage literary devices translate to film as well as the Gothic doppelgänger: An unsuspecting character finds a hidden, often darker, side to herself when her double shows up — and sometimes assumes possession. You see it in The Haunting, Burnt Offerings, The Tenant, Darling, Something Evil, The Shining and many more, but the concept stays fresh through original character development. Here, Howell hits some serious Gothic tones, shooting in a shadowy natural light with elaborate candelabras illuminating stale, yawning parlors whose colossal windows seem more for peering through than for opening. But as evocative as the production design and cinematography are, multiple cheesy scenes with one-dimensional characters undermine Howell’s efforts to spook, let alone redefine a genre.
Emilia Clarke plays Verena, a 1950s Mary Poppins type who roams the Italian countryside, nannying emotionally damaged children back to mental health. Normally a goodbye gal who has no trouble bidding farewell to her wee wards, Verena meets her match in little Jakob (Edward Dring), who mourns the death of his gorgeous pianist mother, Malvina (Caterina Murino), by putting his ear to the quarry stones around the family property to listen for her voice. Flooded with black water, the quarry and its jagged shadows offer a haunting locale for Jakob’s search, as does the surrounding forest, which seems a double of Dario Argento’s in Suspiria, complete with the eerie gossamer mist.
The young nanny uses treats, punishment and her dry wit in her attempts to get Jakob to break his silence. Meanwhile, the lingering presence of Malvina — in her portraits, her clothes and her piano — begins to take hold of the impressionable Verena. And then Klaus (Marton Csokas), Malvina’s tempestuous sculptor husband, seduces Verena in a love scene that’s more silly than sexy — that unfortunate cheese. Klaus wielding his chisel is a nearly hilarious caricature of an artist so passion-struck that he must have his subject immediately: It’s tacky, romance-novel fare. Howell often demonstrates formidable control of atmosphere but bogs his doubles down in the muck of cliché.