Ten years ago, Tom Hardy boarded an aeroplane and gurgled his way into blockbuster history. July 2012 introduced cinemagoers to Bane, the Batman villain portrayed by Hardy as a mountain of muscle and incoherence. His big entrance in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises was during a mid-air heist, where he declared, “Who we are does not matter. What matters is our plan.” Or, as audiences around the globe heard it, over the whoosh of jet engines and the munch of popcorn: “Wooohwedossswhattmersplannnn.”
Hardy was staking his claim as one of the great superhero baddies. He was also making a case for mumbling as high dramatic art. Since then he’s scarcely paused for breath – as we were reminded when he burbled and whinnied his way through a cameo in the final episode of Peaky Blinders.
He popped out of nowhere – on a whaling island off the coast of Canada – and delivered his lines in the style of someone whose mouth was packed with blubber. He was portraying Alfie Solomons, a Jewish gangster with a dapper top hat. “Aaarghhh,” said Hardy to Cillian Murphy’s Tommy Shelby. “Heugggh …” Murphy, beneath his flat cap, glared in incomprehension. It was not 100 per cent apparent that he was acting.
Those two performances constituted twin summits in Hardy’s war on intelligible dialogue. One that has earned him a rare distinction: a new survey reveals he is the actor Americans find hardest to understand – and most likely to have them rushing for the subtitle button.
Hardy will be chuffed to discover he is no outlier and that his influence has spread through cinema and television. While he tends to play loners on screen – whether a rambling road warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road or a spitballing Spitfire pilot in Nolan’s Dunkirk – as an actor, he’s very much surfing the zeitgeist.
Mumbling is admittedly a proud cinematic tradition. It it bound up in the cult of the Method actor, as originated by Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski and introduced to the United States by influential teacher Stella Adler. Her students included Marlon Brando, who pioneered the “method mumble” in 1954’s On The Waterfront (“icouldbeenacontenda”). His influence would later seep into popcorn cinema – for example, Sylvester Stallone crying out “Adriannnnnn” in Rocky. But Hardy has reinvented it for a new generation.
This “nu-mumble” has penetrated every facet of mainstream entertainment. And if Hardy is the viscount of verbal incontinence, then Robert Pattinson is the crown prince. There’s even a Batman connection, with Pattinson’s reimagined Dark Knight in Matt Reeves’s The Batman spending most of his recent big-screen outing talking into his cowl. Pattinson did likewise in another Christopher Nolan film, Tenet, where the twisty time-travel plot was surpassed by the twisty delivery of the actor and his co-star John David Washington.
The Hollywood Mumble has a long lineage, as we have seen. Yet in the early 21st century it seemed to have gone underground. Through the early 2000s the vogue in American independent cinema was “mumblecore”, where directors such as Noah Baumbach and Joe Swanberg would encourage stars such as Greta Gerwig and Olivia Wilde to deliver their dialogue while seemingly chomping through a party-bag of Haribo.
These were tales of everyday people, speaking as if at the bottom of a deep well with iffy acoustics. Yet, if seemingly niche, mumbling has, thanks to the efforts of actors such as Hardy, come roaring back. It has escaped cinema, too, to become ubiquitous on television.
With its 2014 adaptation of Jamaica Inn, the BBC introduced a hot new trend: mumblecore meets costume drama. The outfits on Jamaica Inn looked spiffing, as did the Regency Cornwall setting. But it was all for nought as it was impossible to work out what anyone was saying. (Similar charges were levelled at crime drama Happy Valley.) Such was the outcry around mumbling in many of the broadcaster’s dramas, BBC boss Tony Hall felt the need to intervene – setting out what was tantamount to a mission statement against mumbling (in 2013, a full 12 months before Jamaica Inn): “Muttering can be testing [when viewers find they] have missed a line … you have to remember that you have an audience.”
Things have not improved in the years since. And it’s hard not to think that Hardy, one of the pre-eminent Method actors of his generation, has given legitimacy to the idea of pitching your voice at a level that requires the audience to read the subtitles.
The contrast between today’s muddy dialogue and the whip-smart repartee of classic tinseltown is scalpel-sharp. On social media recently a blooper reel culled from the Golden Age of Hollywood has been doing the rounds. “Oh you’re following me?” says Jimmy Stewart as he notices the camera tracking him as he walks out of frame. He makes this observation with a zinging acuteness as if swapping banter with James Bond at the roulette table.
The blooper film is fascinating because it shows that, even speaking off the cuff, the stars of Old Hollywood knew how to deliver a line. “Goddamn,” says Barbara Stanwyck in another blooper – and she conveys more in that aside than Tom Hardy did in all of his screen time in The Dark Knight Rises.
It wasn’t just 1940s Hollywood studio starlets who understood the importance of clear diction. Actors in the UK were trained in Received Pronunciation, and with good reason. With most initially plying their trade in regional theatre, it was essential that everyone, in every corner of the theatre, understand what they were saying. Only as we have become more wary of cut-glass vowels has mumbling supplanted Received Pronunciation.
As is often the case with unwelcome fads, things are likely to get worse before they get better. Colin Farrell’s late career has been a cornucopia of crawing into his cuffs – whether in True Detective or last year’s The North Water, in which, as seal-hunter from Dublin, he sounded like a Fontaines DC B-side played backwards. And what of pre-cancelled Johnny Depp, whose Captain Jack Sparrow corkscrewed from decent Keith Richards impersonation to ghastly gibbering and grousing?
Driving the fad is a quest for “realism”. Directors increasingly believe hard-to-understand dialogue is a mark of authenticity. In an interview, last year with The Daily Telegraph Simon Clark, chairman of the Institute of Professional Sound and head of production sound recording at the National Film and TV School, said the directorial trend “is referred to as ‘realism’ by people who are in favour of it, and as ‘unintelligible’ by technicians like me”.
He elaborated: “If somebody stands on a set and they mumble, I will make a perfect recording of that happening. Yes, I can make it louder, but if a performer doesn’t make themselves clear I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do about that.”
Hardy’s performance as Bane was regarded as deeply odd in 2012. Today, it is bang on trend. We sit down to our favourite streaming shows or take our cinema seats half expecting a mishmash of mumbles (and, in the case of streaming, with the subtitle button at the ready). Having once sold us a glamorous glitter-strewn version of reality, it feels that today Hollywood wants to take us to a space where, even if they could hear you scream, they probably couldn’t work out what you were saying.