I’m torn on the subject of subtitles. Of course I like to know what’s being said in films, but often the sound mix favours things other than what is spoken, added to which not every actor enunciates like Sir Ian McKellen. (Though that would be funny; imagine The Wire‘s McNulty intoning “What the fuck did I do?” in that marvellously fruity RSC drawl.) But a) when I’m looking at subtitles, I’m not looking at the actors, and b) so many subtitles don’t discriminate – what is whispered and is supposed to be hardly intelligible is usually presented as crisply as what is spoken clearly. Subtitles – the great leveller of dialogue. (Still – vastly preferable to dubs in 99.9% of all cases, though that’s a different discussion.) There are times when I prefer not to understand everything to having every single word spelled out for me in big frickin’ letters.
And then comes along Red Riding, a Channel 4 produced trilogy of films about murders and police corruption. A beautifully produced series of movies, gorgeous to look at, feeling like someone had taken the best elements of David Fincher’s Zodiac and James Elroy’s L.A. Confidential and put them together. Gritty, dark, complex, compelling.
And then those Yorkshire coppers and criminals open their mouths… and out comes – what? Strange vowel sounds. The occasional half-strangled consonant. Words that sound like the H.P. Lovecraftian equivalent of English spoken through snaggle-toothed, monstrous teeth and lips. Honestly, I was under the impression that ‘oop North’ it was all “All right, luv!”, but I thought they still spoke a recognisable form of English!
And these films live off their dialogue. The intricate plots within plots, the conspiracies and betrayals, are conveyed by speech… and half the time I have no idea whether the characters are talking or expelling phlegm from their throats! To be fair, the second of the three films – 1980, following 1974 – is easier to understand, not least because the worst offenders against clear speech are killed horribly in the first film. But still – even for native speakers of the language, I doubt that understanding those Yorkshiremen and their dark, corrupt doings comes easily.
So, what better than to activate the subtitles. To understand what people are saying. Bliss… except the DVD doesn’t feature subtitles. I can choose between Dolby 2.0 and Dolby 5.1 – but subtitles? Something that would actually help me understand what is going on? Something that would allow me to answer questions of the “So, explain this to me: what the bleep is going on?” kind with some sort of authority. But no – I have a lovely sound system, and all the good it does to me in this case is this: it allows me to hear the unintelligible noises with perfect, hifi quality. Thanks a bunch.
Note to self: next time, check out the German DVD edition after all. Perhaps they’re kind and wish their foreign audiences to know what’s going on. Because, let’s face it: bugger those Southerners if they can’t be bothered to live in Yorkshire!
P.S.: There’s something wrong when Peter Mullan is more easily understood than half the rest of the cast.