We take it for granted that the actors we like, the ones that really draw us into cinemas for every new release that has their name on it, are in fact good actors. And I’m not saying otherwise – only that we take it for granted.
Ten years ago I lived in an international youth hostel, not the tourist/backpacker type, and I made friends from many different parts of the world. Occasionally we would watch films together, and as I was the minority in these groups the films were rarely in English. Though my friends were kind enough to make sure that English subtitles were available. My favourites at the time were the Bollywood films, they were so colourful and dramatic.
It’s been ten years since I lived with these people who broadened my horizons. I still have a fondness for films I will inevitably have to read to understand. But this has given me a new appreciation for the actors. Subtitles can be excellent, good, or mediocre; and I will usually figure out what they are trying to say. But it means that I rely on the actors as much as the subtitles, they really have to sell it. If there is danger, I need to look at that screen and see the fear in their eyes, I need to hear it in their voice, not just read it in the line. Films in Spanish are the easiest for me, because although I speak very little, I am familiar with it – and who doesn’t love their drama?
There are times when watch films because of one of the actors. I recently watched a small handful of French films starring Vincent Cassel, who appears in a few American productions as well. Some of these films had excellent subtitles, and others very mediocre – but between the subtitles and the truly excellent performance of the cast, I was never lost, or confused, or left feeling like I should really stick to English.
Peach and I went to see a German film at the local screening for the International Film Festival last year, and it was beautiful. As English speakers, we often joke that German is a harsh and guttural language, and it certainly feels that way in the mouth when you are learning to speak it (which is the full extent of what I remember from my year 9 German classes); but when spoken by a native-speaker, it can be soft and gentle, lilting, and indeed harsh as the situation requires… just like any other language. But again, my familiarity, the excellent subtitles, and a truly fantastic cast meant that I had no trouble following.
Today I watched a Russian film, Flight Crew. Russian is a language with which I have no familiarity, I was reliant entirely on some subtitles that were a little more bad than mediocre and the cast’s performance. It was absolutely worth it. When the characters were scared, I was scared. When the characters were happy, I was happy. When they were focused absolutely on surviving, I was right there with them. And all of this is on the actors. It was a truly exceptional piece of work.
I live in New Zealand, at the end of the world you might say. So far from everywhere that, although we are known for our friendliness, we can often make assumptions about other countries based on what we see in American films. I have learned that these assumptions are often wrong. Or at least badly out of date. I can happily say that I look forward to visiting Russia in the future.
The actors in these films really are very, very good. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy them the same way. This is what makes me realise that we take actors for granted, especially when the film is in a language that we speak. I can only hope that the films in English that I enjoy are as enjoyable to people who don’t speak English, who have to rely on the subtitles and the cast’s performance to understand.