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.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis