More on the “accurate accent” question #richardarmitage

The residents of Milton found a “historic northern” accent that worked well for me. Richard Armitage in episode 4 of North & South. Source:

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.

~ by Servetus on April 4, 2017.

8 Responses to “More on the “accurate accent” question #richardarmitage”

  1. Nice article on a topic I’ve discussed often with friends: how accent choice in film or theater creates our own version or interpretation of a reality, but one that differs from actual fact. Case in point: Yael Farber’s The Crucible. In interviews Richard mentioned that the choice of Northern British accent was consistent with the fact that Massachusetts settlers were British farmers. But the prevailing theory among linguists is that what changed after British colonization of N America was not the American accent but the British one, circa the turn of the 19th c. The use of British accents in that production didn’t bother me one bit, but that rationalization did.


    • It also seemed inconceivable to me that the Salem people’s accents would be especially homogeneous. The English colonists had been there since 1620 — 3 to 4 generations before 1692 — but they were heavily mingled with people who had freshly immigrated. Proctor was born in Suffolk; his own speech was probably an amalgamation of different influences. In any case they wouldn’t have spoken like Americans do today (even Massachusetts people), which was what most people I saw who didn’t like the accent objected to.


  2. Very interesting topic.
    I agree that a movie set in a different country/culture but acted completely by US American/German or whatever actors should not try to imitate the local accent.

    If just one (or few) of the protagonists come from a different culture they should either pick an actor from that culture or mimick it as good as possible – but only when interacting with the remaining crew.

    I really hate it when in US (or to a lesser extent, German) movies the hispanic or whatever minority has to talk with each other in a heavily accented kind of pidgin English.
    In such cases I much prefer to have the original conversation with subtitles (something that is happening increasingly, to my satisfaction).

    In the German dubbing industry, you mostly find accurate picks for accents –
    which of course only works for non-US accents. You can’t try to imitate a Texan or Southern accent and it wouldn’t make sense anyway.
    But to pick an example, the German voice of Raj from Big Bang Theory is really excellent.
    For some hispanic accents, the industry sometimes picks a (contintental) Spanish accent instead e.g. a Mexican one (which not many people would note, but it bothers me).

    In general terms, the higher the budget (of the movie), the more professional the dubbing, the more credible the accents.


    • It would depend on the film but sometimes minorities do have their own argot. I don’t always understand all of it if I’m watching one of those very ‘experimental’ movies. It’s sort of hard for me to figure out how one would deal with that in Germany (where NDR sometimes includes subtitles for Austrians on tv). Maybe some things don’t translate.

      I suppose the main thing is that the accent in the dubbing doesn’t make the whole act of dubbing seem ridiculous?


      • Yes, I would say so. If there is no way to get it right, or to include subtle meanings, it might be better to just leave the original version with subtitles.
        I sometimes wonder if dubbed versions (where the company did a good job) does not give an illusion of making the setting feel too “acquainted” (the Iranian movie Nader and Simin comes to my mind). OTOH, the familiar words make you see that stories (and humans) are often much more alike than a different language might suggest… So – not all dubbing is bad, it has its benefits.


        • I agree. Sometimes we’re supposed to feel alienated from what’s happening, via language.

          I prefer subtitles — but I had another one of those weird experiences recently, it might have been in “Lion” ?? Not sure. When the first subtitles came on the screen, four people stood up and left. My mom wouldn’t watch subtitled movies either. ?


  3. Thanks for the link love!


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