More on the “accurate accent” question #richardarmitage
Interesting piece in Vulture today about which accents actors should use in period dramas, occasioned apparently by Jessica Chastain’s distracting mimickry of a Polish accent in The Zookeeper’s Wife. (I haven’t seen the movie and it’s getting meh reviews, so I probably won’t go to the cinema for it.) Which is kind of too bad because (a) it raises inevitable comparisons with Meryl Streep and (b) Polish accents in English are really charming. Anyway, three editors weigh in for different positions. One raises the fact that inserting an accent into a situation where it wouldn’t occur naturally misrepresents something about the nature of language (similar to what Herba said about Andrew Garfield’s insane attempt at a Portuguese accent in Silence). However, I remember vaguely from the trailer for that film that there’s German-Polish interaction, so accent could be a way to indicate the difference between Poles and Germans in the narrative (although whether an American audience these days can distinguish between these accents is also questionable).
The article offers three options — everyone just uses their own accents; everyone tries to get it right even if they fail; everyone uses a British accent. I was amused by the latter option, but I think it’s right that a U.S. audience is not at all bothered if everyone in a film about Rome speaks like they’re from the Home Counties, and it’s not like they’re speaking Latin anyway. I agree it would be silly if, for instance, a bunch of American actors in a film about Japanese history all mimicked Japanese accents. I don’t like it if I see a white American actor playing an American Indian with “Indian talk.” Depending on context, that kind of thing might verge on a dangerous reproduction of untenable ethnocentrist or racist stereotypes.
For me? I can’t go as far as saying everyone should do as he pleases, because I do still think it matters in some instances. It’s true that a film isn’t bad because of flubbed accents (e.g., Silence is still a good film even though Andrew Garfield sounds like he’s from two or three different continents), but an accent does contribute to verisimilitude, which in the case of a historical film relates to the film’s sense of chronology and place. This is part of why actors should not ad lib lines in historical films, either, at least not without consulting historical linguists. Anachronism really jars.
I have no idea if the accents in North & South were accurate, or if they played the same way to the UK viewer, but from my perspective, they gave us important signals about the characters, particularly about their geographical origins and social status. Judging from the amount of time I’ve given on this blog Richard Armitage’s US accent(s), it also matters to me if I’m going to believe he’s an American. It doesn’t work for someone with a pronounced British accent to be playing a U.S. CIA officer, especially not if every other CIA officer is native speaker of U.S. English.