The Accent Police Were Vigilant in 2020

From Birds of Prey to Bly Manor, the sirens were a-wailing all throughout the year

The Accent Police Were Vigilant on Twitter in 2020
Ewan McGregor, Robert Pattinson, Christopher Walken
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Our Annual Report continues today with a look back on the year’s curious run of accents in film and television. Stay tuned for more awards, lists, and articles in the days and weeks to come about the best music, film, and TV of the year. If you’ve missed any part of our Annual Report, you can check out all the coverage here

Watching John Patrick Shanley’s new movie Wild Mountain Thyme is, in many ways, a picturesque experience. It’s set in the Irish countryside, and stars Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan, two very attractive people. But as I watched a very odd man played by Dornan buzz around his romantic feelings for a very charming woman played by Blunt, something began to nag at me. Somewhere in the distance, outside the movie itself, I heard sirens. I could tell that the Accent Police were well on their way.

Truth be told, the sirens were sounding long before I actually watched Wild Mountain Thyme. When the trailer debuted in November, Irish Twitter had a field day with the apparently inaccurate Irish accents on parade, as is their right. I know in my heart if a movie was ever made about the ineffable, daffy magic of upstate New York, I would personally nitpick every inaccuracy with the fury of someone who wants to go to Stewart’s and has to settle for a generic Mobil station.

But of course, the Accent Police are not limited to officers whose actual jurisdiction includes the geographical area of a particular film. In 2020, they’ve been as busy as ever: Down South, commenting on the lack of realism in Robert Pattinson’s Southern-preacher voice in The Devil All the Time, or in England, casing Henry Thomas for signs of his American upbringing via The Haunting of Bly Manor. Their years-long international manhunt for Nicole Kidman had another breakthrough this year, when they made the remarkable observation that there remain traces of her Australian lilt even when she plays someone from New York City, as she did in this year’s prestige-trash HBO series The Undoing.

In other words, the Accent Police are everywhere, and they know what every accent is supposed to sound like. How else to explain the number of American-written reviews that comment with absolute certainty that various actors have got their European-based accents all wrong?

To be honest, I’ve always been faintly incredulous about the people who claim to know with utter certainty that, say, Anne Hathaway’s Yorkshire accent in the forgotten 2011 romance One Day is woefully inadequate. Reading reviews, I thought: Has everyone been summering in Yorkshire County without me? In that movie, Hathaway might not be able to pass as a Yorkshire lifer, but she sounds a bit like Jane Leeves on Frasier, who is a genuine Englishwoman (if not one from Yorkshire County specifically). Accept it, and move on.

So much accent-bashing strikes me as received wisdom: If it’s an American trying out a new accent, it’s a safe bet that they’re not completely nailing it, just like assuming that movies shot in New York will not accurately depict the geography of intra-city travel. Those complaints are about equally useful–which is to say, considerably less important than how a performance actually works. And I say this as someone whose heart sinks every time Ewan McGregor or Colin Farrell tries to sound like an American.

The sinking feeling doesn’t come from their lack of accuracy, to be clear. Actors from the U.K., men in particular, tend to flatten out their voices into vaguely cornpone Midwestern semi-drawls when attempting to sound like Regular Americans, and that’s not even considering the weird masticating timbre that Gerard Butler takes on when he suppresses his Scottish burr. What’s lost in these performances isn’t accuracy but musicality.

Whether Ewan McGregor is leaning into his Scottishness in Trainspotting or doing a clipped imitation of Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi, his voice has real character that movies like The Men Who Stare at Goats hammer out of it. At long long, though, he finally bit into an entertaining American voice for this year’s Birds of Prey, which depends less on evoking a particular state or region than teasing out a self-impressed insouciance. In that same movie, native Australian Margot Robbie isn’t doing a real New York accent as Harley Quinn, but an outlandish comic-book version of the same. I wouldn’t call either accent good, in the sense of Meryl Streep in the ‘80s. But I would call them effective.

In a similar vein, the dodgy Irish accents of Wild Mountain Thyme perfectly fit a dodgy, barmy movie that I largely enjoyed watching. I would never suggest that director/writer John Patrick Shanley (adapting one of his plays, which doubtless works better on stage) encouraged his actors not to master the Irish lilt to match the loopiness of his work. I would suggest, though, that they have that effect anyway. The supposedly offending parties are Emily Blunt, playing a farmer whose lifelong infatuation with her neighbor and fellow farmer (genuine Irishman Jamie Dornan) reaches its breaking point; and Christopher Walken, playing Dornan’s father.

To be sure, Christopher Walken does not have a natural facility with an Irish accent, which the movie practically flaunts by having his character narrate some of the story, from beyond the grave no less. But it takes a harder-hearted person than I to hear his attempt and recoil in disgust, rather than smile in recognition of the magnificent oddness, the way a mild brogue has to wrestle with Walken’s distinct intonations just for passage out of his mouth. Surely, Shanley was aware that this defies realism; the character is supposed to be eccentric and difficult, almost a parody of obstinate, folksy Irishness. It would be inaccurate to say that Christopher Walken fails at “doing” an Irish accent in Wild Mountain Thyme, because he is, as always, speaking with a Christopher Walken accent. This, he does flawlessly.

Blunt is less ostentatiously bad (or “bad”); to my thoroughly untrained ears, she sounds OK. Again, beside the point: She brings what she needs to the role. In the movie’s best scenes–the ones that feel most successfully translated from the stage–the characters snipe at each other with the kind of frustration that can only come from deep familiarity, and Blunt expert walks the line between smoldering with desire and seething with contempt. Shanley openly accepts a kind of daftness that takes this relationship beyond opposites-attract cliches and into stranger waters.

There’s no particular reason, then, that I ought to spend much time fussing over the particulars of its accents. Wild Mountain Thyme is not a great movie, and it may not even be especially, authentically Irish. (Shanley is American, with Irish relatives, and his screenplay for Moonstruck, centering Italian-American characters, feels more lived-in than this one.) Whatever its faults, sending Blunt and Walken to Irish immersion camp, or replacing them with other actors, wouldn’t make the movie any better. It might well make it worse.

Maybe Tom Hardy has the right idea: He seems to invent new accents whole-cloth for each character, obliterating any number of reasonable protestations. Nicole Kidman, too, seems unconcerned with vocal precision–almost as if the emotional truth of any given scene matters more than whether her Australian roots show when her voice wavers. If a shaky accent indicates a lack of commitment to the role, by all means, carp away, but when has Kidman ever seemed uncommitted to her roles? And of course, of course, regionally specific accents will always cause those familiar with the region some consternation.

All of this is to say that the Accent Police are on par with the Plot Hole Patrol: would-be authorities who might warrant the occasional consultation, but should mostly be ignored.

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