Ten years ago, Tom Hardy got on a plane and gargled his way into blockbuster history. In July 2012, cinemagoers were introduced to Bane, the Batman villain portrayed by Hardy as a mountain of muscle and incoherence. His major appearance in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises was during an airborne heist, during which he declared, “It doesn’t matter who we are. What matters is our plan.” Or, as audiences around the world heard it, over the roar of jet engines and munching popcorn: “Wooohwedossswhattmersplannnn”.
Hardy maintained his claim as one of the great superhero villains. He also advocated murmuring as a high dramatic art. He’s barely caught a breath since – we were reminded of that when he muttered and whinnied his way through a cameo in the final episode of Peaky Blinders.
He appeared out of nowhere – on a whaling island off the coast of Canada – and delivered his lines in the style of someone with a mouth full of bacon. He portrayed Alfie Solomons, a Jewish gangster in a sleek top hat. “Aaarghhh,” Hardy said to Cillian Murphy’s Tommy Shelby. “Heugggh…” Murphy glared at him blankly from under his flat cap. It wasn’t 100 percent obvious that he was acting.
These two performances represented two high points in Hardy’s war for intelligible dialogue. One that’s earned him a rare accolade: A new poll shows he’s the actor Americans find most difficult to understand — and most likely has them rushing to the captions button.
Hardy will be pleased to note that he is no outlier and that his influence has spread across cinema and television. While he tends to play loners on screen – whether it’s a roving street warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road or a stuffy Spitfire pilot in Nolan’s Dunkirk – as an actor he’s very much a surfer of the zeitgeist.
Admittedly, mumbling is a proud film tradition. It is associated with the cult of the Method actor, invented by the Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski and introduced to the United States by the influential teacher Stella Adler. Among her students was Marlon Brando, who pioneered the “Mumble Method” in 1954’s On The Waterfront (“icouldbeenacontenda”). His influence later trickled into popcorn cinema – for example Sylvester Stallone shouting “Adriannnnnn” in “Rocky”. But Hardy reinvented it for a new generation.
This “nu-mumble” has permeated 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, as Pattinson’s reimagined Dark Knight in Matt Reeves’ The Batman spends most of his latest big-screen outing talking into his hood. Pattinson did so in another Christopher Nolan film, Tenet, where the curvaceous time-travel plot was matched by the curvaceous performances of the actor and his co-star John David Washington.
As we have seen, the Hollywood Mumble has a long history. However, in the early 21st century it seemed to have gone underground. In the early 2000s, “mumblecore” was the rage in American independent cinema, where directors like Noah Baumbach and Joe Swanberg encouraged stars like Greta Gerwig and Olivia Wilde to conduct their dialogue while seemingly munching through a party bag of Haribo.
These were stories of ordinary people speaking as if at the bottom of a deep well with dubious acoustics. Though seemingly niche, the mumble has returned thanks to the efforts of actors like Hardy. It has also escaped cinema to become ubiquitous on television.
With its 2014 adaptation of Jamaica Inn, the BBC ushered in a hot new trend: mumblecore meets costume drama. The outfits at the Jamaica Inn looked chic, as did the Regency Cornwall backdrop. But it was all for naught as it was impossible to find out what anyone was saying. (Similar allegations have been leveled against crime drama Happy Valley.) The outcry over mumbling in many of the channel’s dramas was such that BBC boss Tony Hall felt the need to step in – by articulating a mission statement against mumbling (full 12th March 2013). Months before Jamaica Inn): “Nuts can be a test [when viewers find they] missed a line… you have to remember you have an audience.
Things haven’t improved in the years since. And it’s hard to believe that Hardy, one of the preeminent method actors of his generation, lent legitimacy to the idea of raising his voice to a level that required audiences to read the subtitles.
The contrast between today’s muddy dialogue and the whip-smart wit of classic Tinseltown is scalpel-sharp. A blooper reel from the Golden Age of Hollywood was recently making the rounds on social media. “Oh, you following me?” says Jimmy Stewart, noticing the camera following him as he walks off frame. He makes this observation with a sharp edge, as if joking with James Bond at the roulette table.
The blooper film is fascinating because it shows that, even when speaking off the cuff, the stars of Old Hollywood knew how to hold a line. “Damn it,” says Barbara Stanwyck in another blooper — and she conveys more of it than Tom Hardy did in all of his screen time on The Dark Knight Rises.
It wasn’t just the Hollywood stars of the 1940s who understood the importance of clear language. Actors in the UK have been trained in Received Pronunciation, and with good reason. Since most originally worked in regional theatre, it was important that everyone in every corner of the theater understood what they were saying. It wasn’t until we became more careful with polished vowels that the mumbling crowded out the received pronunciation.
As is often the case with unwanted fads, things are likely to get worse before they get better. Colin Farrell’s late career has been a cornucopia of crawling up his cuffs — whether on True Detective or last year The North Water, in which he sounded like a reversed B-side of Fontaine’s DC as a Dublin seal hunter. And what about the pre-cancelled Johnny Depp, whose Captain Jack Sparrow went from being a decent Keith Richards impersonation to a ghastly babble and nagging?
Pushing the fad is a quest for “realism.” Directors increasingly believe that difficult-to-understand dialogue is a sign of authenticity. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph last year, Simon Clark, chairman of the Institute of Professional Sound and head of production sound recording at the National Film and TV School, said that the directorial trend “is being labeled as ‘realism’ by people who are for it and as ‘incomprehensible’ to technicians like me”.
He elaborated, “If someone stands on a set and mumbles, I’ll get a perfect shot of it. Yes, I can make it louder, but if a performer doesn’t express themselves clearly, I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Hardy’s performance as Bane was considered extremely odd in 2012. Today it is very trendy. We sit down to our favorite streaming shows, or half-sit our cinema seats, expecting a jumble of murmurs (and, in the case of streaming, with the subtitles button ready). Having once sold us a glamorous, glitter-strewn version of reality, it feels like Hollywood today wants to take us to a place where, even if they could hear you scream, they probably couldn’t understand what you said