Gilbey on Film: what’s in a voice?

From James Stewart to Toy Story 3, the way an actor speaks can trigger powerful emotions.

Although cinema is discussed primarily in terms of sight and sound, the latter element is usually considered secondary: a mere embellishment, or an adjunct to a film's visual identity.

If sound design and music only occasionally command our attention and scrutiny, we are even less likely to think about voice. Do we take it for granted because our relationship with voice pre-dates by almost a year any optical engagement with the world? Has voice been with us for so long that we can fail even to notice it?

But if it is through voice (as well as touch and smell, senses that cinema has yet to replicate adequately) that we forge our primal bonds, no wonder the sound of a particular actor can trigger emotional associations that render us powerless.

Kubrick's Barry Lyndon is one of my favourite films, and a work to which I return regularly and willingly. But I wonder what percentage of my positive response to that picture can be attributed to the presence of Michael Hordern as the unseen narrator. You see, Hordern provided the voices for the BBC's Paddington Bear; I was four years old when that animated series -- made in bite-sized, five-minute episodes screened at teatime -- began in 1975 (the same year, coincidentally, that Barry Lyndon was released).

Consequently, Hordern's voice joined the aural collage of my childhood, and I have no doubt now that something in me responded to his gently rumbling timbre when I first saw Kubrick's picture in my early twenties. And yet it only occurred to me when I started writing this post.

Voice is vital to our relationship with character and actor, even when we cannot understand what is being said (Benicio del Toro in The Usual Suspects), or when the voice does not belong to the on-screen body (James Earl Jones as Darth Vader in the Star Wars films). In his astute appreciation of James Stewart, published in the London Review of Books in 2002, David Bromwich insists that the contours of Stewart's voice are crucial to our understanding of that cherished star:

One thing a casual viewer learns to love, if he is going to like Stewart at all, is a kind of stammer that trips in naturally and convincingly -- a signature touch he seldom allowed to pass into self-parody until his late fifties. An anomaly almost as emphatic is the frequent decision to speak in a soft voice, always with perfect clarity and conveying a range of available senses for words. Stewart does this often in intimate scenes with women, but not only with them, and it shows the passage from theatre to a broader naturalist domain of feeling that the movies uniquely made possible. Even now, when fewer actors bring the wrong kind of theatricality from stage to screen, the freedom to modulate a speaking voice downward is rarely grasped; and if you listen to the better-known stars of the 1930s and 1940s, only a select company of them appear to have glimpsed and taken the opportunity: Ida Lupino, Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda -- were there many more? Even within that group, Stewart is exceptionally resourceful. His voice can be put in the service of feelings as they bubble slowly from confusion to clarity. Or it can be used to signal the intimation of half-thoughts, shadowy promptings of a kind that only a first-rate writer may catch in words.

The voice has attracted more attention with the rise of animation in the past two decades, and in particular the celebrity voice-casting that has predominated ever since Robin Williams, as the Genie in Disney's Aladdin, turned a simple shift in the dubbing studio into a gutsy, full-blown performance. (His was one of the first vocal turns to dictate the direction of the animation, something that now happens routinely.)

But while a few hours at the microphone in the service of an animated film has become part of the career plan of any Hollywood star, I still don't know if we appreciate the extent to which voice can enhance and even define a movie. Tom Hanks won his brace of Best Actor Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. Yet I regard his finest work, and the film in which he seems most emotionally present despite his physical absence, as being his portrayal of Woody the cowboy doll in the Toy Story series. In the tenderness of his line readings, he isn't lip-syncing, or layering his voice over the film; voice and image become indivisible. He is Woody.

There is a similar synchronicity in the vocal performance by the comedian Steve Carell in the upcoming computer-animated film Despicable Me, which I saw recently. (It opens in the UK in October.) To play the super-villain Gru, who is trying to steal the moon in order to trump his nearest rival in the business of evil, Carell has concocted a vocal tangle that suggests a history of movie wickedness. There are some German consonants in there, and a peppering of Russian, but most of all it's that all-purpose Hollywood accent known as "Foreign".

Carell suffuses this with tremors of vulnerability -- like Dr Evil in the Austin Powers movies, Gru is essentially an anxious figure, middle management in essence, who would really just like to be considered good at what he does. The film's 3-D animation will be one of its major attractions, but it would feel flat without Carell.

For more on this subject than can reasonably be covered in any blog, do grab a copy of Michel Chion's groundbreaking book The Voice in Cinema, in which the author also considers the phenomenon of the disembodied voice (HAL in 2001: a Space Odyssey, "Mother" in Psycho). For the best results, I recommend reading it aloud.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He blogs at Cultural Capital every Tuesday.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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