Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal ★★★★½

I can’t imagine that this would have had nearly the same impact on me if I’d viewed it at home in my living room, on a modest screen, through tinny in-built speakers; especially given how crucial the film’s immersive soundscape is to the overall experience. I struggle to think of another film that has better utilised the expressive power of diegetic sound quite as effectively as this does. It is truly remarkable, because it manages to give the audience at least some small indication of what it must feel like, not only to lose your hearing, but to live life without it, and to go through the motions of just how alienating this can be. Much of this comes down to the incredibly committed audio work of sound designer Nicolas Becker, who spent years thoroughly researching his subject and implemented a variety of complex microphone rigs to achieve this illusion. The way the sound is warped and muffled and distorted here to evoke this sensation of hearing loss is extraordinary, and at times incredibly disconcerting—to the point where it felt like I was losing my own hearing as events played out. Never before have I been so aware of my eardrums and how desperately fragile they are. For this reason alone, the film is an essential big screen experience, as it is the optimum way of appreciating the film’s technical proficiency to its fullest extent. I would implore anyone who is able to do so safely, to see this at a cinema whenever they can.

What I liked the most about this is that it is not a story that purely seeks to highlight how inhibiting loss of hearing can be. It is a sobering tale, yes, but it is also optimistic and frames hearing loss and deafness not as a handicap, but as something to work through and adapt into everyday life, without any detriment to the person affected. The film is very much a journey of acceptance for the protagonist Ruben Stone—he has lost the sensation that is most important to him, struggles to live without it, stubbornly refuses to accept that it is permanent, throws everything he can at the “problem” to try and “fix it” in the hope that he can return to the life he once had, only to eventually come to terms with his newfound circumstances and realise that the reality of his situation is not as devastating as he’d first feared. Ruben discovers the hard way that no amount of money or expertise can restore his hearing to what it once was—that ship has sailed, and he has to learn to accept it and move on.

I also think this film features a remarkably honest portrayal of deaf people and their way of life—using genuine deaf actors and proving to us that they lead lives that are every bit as rich and unencumbered as those who can hear and speak freely. I loved particularly that director Darius Marder chose to do without subtitles for all of the signed sections; keeping those in the audience who are not familiar with the language completely in the dark, much like Ruben is to begin with. It is only right that the shoe should be on the other foot here—that hearing-impaired audiences will be able to get something from the film that the unimpaired cannot. It’s a very healthy approach that in no way feels pandering or condescending to those audiences; at least it never felt so to me.

Needless to say, Riz Ahmed is the centrepiece of the film and his performance did not disappoint. He conveys Ruben’s transition through the ups and downs of his ordeal extremely effectively. Part of me does wonder what could have been had the decision been made to cast an actor who had genuinely gone through this experience, over someone who could not possibly relate. But my appreciation for how sensitively the rest of the film is handled largely overshadows this doubt, and I don’t feel it would be fair of me to detract from just how brilliant Riz is here. You’ve got to respect the guy for going to such lengths to prepare himself for the role—devoting several hours of each day to American Sign Language sessions, intense physical training, and drum lessons. He’s a genuine talent, and his commitment is just part of the extraordinary efforts that were taken to bring this film to the screen—some 13 years in the making; a lengthy development period that in the end really paid off. It’s kind of bonkers to learn that after so many years of meticulous research and planning, Marder only had the budget to film the thing within a narrow four week window. That, to me, is the sign of a very resourceful and competent filmmaker.

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