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February 7, 2005

This isn't actually a way to tell a movie's bad, but...

Am I the only one who thinks it's stupid for actors to take on accents when playing foreign characters? Take K-19: The Widowmaker. Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, and a handful of other actors looking to make a quick buck play a bunch of cold war Russians trying to make their way in the world on a nuclear submarine. And they all speak in English with Russian accents.

We all know that cold war Russian submarine crewman didn't talk to each other in English. They were more than likely speaking in, you guessed it, Russian. We accept the conceit that they're speaking English, just like we accept that there's music underscoring everything they do and a long list of people's names before and afterwards. I fail to see how speaking English in Russian accents makes it more authentic.

That doesn't bother me that much, I just think it's kind of stupid. What does bother me is when actors use British accents to play non-British roles. I'm looking at you, Chris O'Donnell Three Musketeers. Let's get something straight. The Musketeers were French. I don't mind Tim Curry doing an British accent playing Cardinal Richelieu because, well, he's British, but everybody else, come on. I try to keep my nose out of politics, but I could make a comment about Bush being lucky that we Americans can't tell the difference between foreign countries. I'll leave that to the imagination of the reader.

There are only two movies that I can think of that don't fall into this trap, one being Hunt for Red October, where Sean Connery speaks in Russian until a zoom into Sam Neill(?), after which he busts out that Connery brand Scottish accent of his. The other is Amadeus. I haven't seen this movie in a while, but I do remember that Tom Hulce played Mozart with his natural American accent. I had remembered everyone doing their real accents, but apparently, F. Murray Abraham, an American, played Salieri with a British accent, and a British actor in the cast used an American accent. That's kind of weird. Maybe the accents were used to differentiate between the different languages they were speaking, but I sincerely doubt it. I clearly don't know what I'm talking about here, if someone has seen this movie recently, feel free to fill me in, but I'll say that Amadeus at least tried something different. Oh yeah, and there's also Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but the less said about that, the better.

I had this discussion with Matt Elkind once (regarding Girl with a Pearl Earring), and he noted that at the time that many period pieces took place, if people were speaking English, they were doing it in British accents. The modern American accent didn't exist, so it's kind of more authentic for them to have English accents. To which I can only respond, I guess.

Posted by Will at February 7, 2005 6:56 AM


The best approach to accents in English-language drama was that adopted in "Private Schulz" (BBC, erly 1980's) which was that everyone spoke in their normal voice *except* when speaking a language foreign to them, when they acquired a mock accent. So the Germans only had a German accent when they were supposed to be speaking English etc. It actually made things a lot clearer.

And for the record, since this is the Diogenes club, whatever Sean Co;nnery was attempting to speak in "Hunt For Red October", it didn't come out as recognisable Russian, or at least not what the subtitles claimed he was saying.

There's also "Digby, the biggest dog in the world" where the Russians speak English with a stock Disney accent, but have subtitles in Russian. But then, Spike Milligan was in that movie...

Posted by: Ian Kemmish at February 20, 2005 9:23 PM

You know, I saw that show once, but I couldn't remember the name of it. I agree it was a good use of accents. As for Connery's Russian, I must admit, I just assumed it was at least somewhat authentic. Shows what I know.

Posted by: Will at February 21, 2005 5:23 AM

In "Amadeus," I'm pretty sure that an American accent denotes German while a British accent denotes Italian (or an Italian speaking German). Mozart, Mozart's wife, Mozart's father, Schickaneder, Lorl the maid (played by a young Cynthia Nixon) and the Emperor are all Austrian and speak with American accents. Salieri and Count Orsini-Rosenberg have British accents.

Another good example is "Paths of Glory." The characters are all French but they speak with American accents; Adolphe Menjou sort of sounds French but really the accents denote class, not nationality.

Posted by: John-Paul at February 22, 2005 3:39 AM

"I had this discussion with Matt Elkind once, and he noted that at the time that many period pieces took place, if people were speaking English, they were doing it in British accents. The modern American accent didn't exist, so it's kind of more authentic for them to have English accents. To which I can only respond, I guess."

Just stumbled across this while looking for bad accent discussions, and I have to say Matt is wrong. Neither the modern British accent nor the modern American accent existed a few centuries ago. More oddly, the old British/English accent around the 16th through 18th centuries probably (because no one can be sure, these things aren't fossilized) sounded more like American accents from the deep south. But, can you imagine anyone taking Shakespeare seriously (or any other period peice) if everyone sounds like an Arkansas hillbilly?

Posted by: Alvin at June 19, 2005 1:47 PM