Ten years ago, Tom Hardy boarded a plane and gurgled his way into blockbuster history. July 2012 introduced moviegoers to Bane, the Batman villain portrayed by Hardy as a mountain of muscle and incoherence. His grand entrance in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises was during a mid-air robbery, where he declared: “Who we are doesn’t matter. What matters is our plan.” Or, as audiences around the globe heard it, over the whir of jet engines and the crunch of popcorn: “Woohwedossswhattmersplannnn.”
Hardy asserted himself as one of the great superheroes. He also argued for mumbling as highly dramatic art. Since then, he’s barely caught his breath – as we were reminded when he grumbled and whined his way through a cameo in the latest episode of Peaky Blinders.
He appeared out of nowhere – on a whaling ship off the coast of Canada – and delivered his lines in the style of someone whose mouth was packed with blubber. He portrayed Alfie Solomons, a Jewish gangster with a great top hat. “Aaarghhh,” Hardy said to Cillian Murphy’s Tommy Shelby. “Heugggh …” Murphy, under his flat cap, stared blankly. It was not 100 percent clear that he acted.
These two performances constituted twin summits in Hardy’s war against intelligible dialogue. One that has earned him a rare distinction: a new survey finds him to be the actor Americans find hardest to understand — and most likely to make them scurry for the caption button.
Hardy will be pleased to discover that he is not an outlier and that his influence has spread through cinema and television. While he tends to play loners on screen – whether it’s a walking warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road or a spitballing Spitfire pilot in Nolan’s Dunkirk – as an actor, he very much surfs the zeitgeist.
Mumbling is admittedly a proud film tradition. It related to the cult of the Method actor, which originated with the Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski and was introduced to the United States by the 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 – such as Sylvester Stallone shouting “Adriannnnn” in Rocky. But Hardy has reinvented it for a new generation.
This “nu mumbling” has penetrated every facet of mainstream entertainment. And if Hardy is the viscount for verbal incontinence, then Robert Pattinson is the crown prince. There’s even a Batman connection, with Pattinson’s reimagined Dark Knight in Matt Reeves’ The Batman spending most of his last big-screen outing talking into the cape. Pattinson did the same in another Christopher Nolan film, Tenet, where the convoluted time travel plot was surpassed by the convoluted delivery of the actor and his co-star John David Washington.
The Hollywood Mumble has a long lineage, as we’ve seen. Yet it seemed to have gone underground in the early 21st century. Throughout the early 2000s, the vogue in American independent cinema was “mumblecore,” where directors like Noah Baumbach and Joe Swanberg would encourage stars like Greta Gerwig and Olivia Wilde to deliver their dialogue while seemingly chomping through a party bag of Haribo.
These were stories about ordinary people, who spoke as if at the bottom of a deep well with uncertain acoustics. Still, if seemingly niche, mumbling, thanks to the efforts of actors like Hardy, has come roaring back. It has escaped the 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 at the Jamaica Inn looked spiffy, as did the Regency Cornwall setting. But it was all for naught as it was impossible to make out what anyone was saying. (Similar allegations were leveled against crime drama Happy Valley.) Such was the outcry over mumbling in many of the broadcaster’s dramas, BBC chief Tony Hall felt the need to intervene – setting out what amounted to an anti-mumbling mission statement (in 2013, a full 12 months before Jamaica Inn): “Mumling may be on trial [when viewers find they] has missed a line … you have to remember you have an audience.”
Things haven’t improved in the years since. And it’s hard not to think that Hardy, one of the premier Method actors of his generation, has given legitimacy to the idea of lending your voice at a level that requires audiences to read the subtitles.
The contrast between today’s muddy dialogue and the whip-smart retort of classic tinseltown is razor sharp. Recently, a blooper reel taken from Hollywood’s golden age has been doing the rounds on social media. “Oh, you’re following me?” Jimmy Stewart says as he notices the camera following him as he exits the frame. He makes this observation with a singsong sharpness as if he were exchanging banter with James Bond at the roulette table.
The blooper footage is fascinating because it shows that the stars of Old Hollywood, even without speaking, knew how to deliver a line. “Oh my God,” says Barbara Stanwyck in another blooper – and she conveys more in that aside than Tom Hardy did in his entire screen time in The Dark Knight Rises.
It wasn’t just 1940s Hollywood studio stars who understood the importance of clear diction. Actors in the UK were trained in Received Pronunciation, and for good reason. When most people were initially engaged in regional theatre, it was important that everyone, in every corner of the theatre, understood what they were saying. Only as we have become more wary of broken-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 cringing at his cuffs – whether it’s in True Detective or last year’s North Water, in which, as a seal prisoner from Dublin, he sounded like a Fontaine’s DC B-side played backwards. And what about pre-cancelled Johnny Depp, whose Captain Jack Sparrow pulled from decent Keith Richards impersonation to ghastly chatter and brooding?
Running a fad is a quest for “realism”. Directors increasingly believe that hard-to-understand dialogue is a sign of authenticity. In an interview last year with The Daily Telegraph, Simon Clark, chairman of the Institute of Professional Sound and head of sound recording production at the National Film and TV School, said the directorial trend “is being referred to as ‘realism’ by people in favor for that, and as ‘incomprehensible’ by technicians like me”.
He elaborated: “If someone’s standing on a set and they’re mumbling, I want to make a perfect recording of what’s going on. Yes, I can make it louder, but if a performer doesn’t clear up, I’m afraid that’s not something I can do with it.”
Hardy’s performance as Bane was seen as deeply weird in 2012. Today, it’s top notch. We sit down to our favorite streaming shows or sit on our cinema sets half expecting a mix 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 like today’s Hollywood wants to take us to a room where, even if they could hear you scream, they probably couldn’t make out what you were saying .