Accents in Films

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How important is it to you that actors represent the accent according to the time and place of the story?

At one end of the pendulum, if the film is about French people in France, the audience should listen to French and read the subtitles. In the middle of the swing, actors speaking English with French accents is an option. On the other side of swing, the powers that be in filmmaking decide it doesn’t seem to matter if an American, British, or Australian actors use accents to represent a singular group.

Annoying and Distracting

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Valkyrie(2008) directed by Bryan Singer.

A premise with potential to highlight Nazi Germany in a unique way–Hitler didn’t dupe everyone. The political coup and assassination attempt in July, 1944 was a fool-proof plot. What’s good about the film? The cinematography was sound, even brilliant in spots. Remember the close up of the German guard squelching a mosquito biting his arm with his cigarette? Or Singer’s use of mirrors and Cruise’s eyeball in a box as his companion? The suspenseful sound effects had you on the edge of your seat. What a great cast! All my British favorites. Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy being serious for once, Terence Stamp, David Shoefield, and the list goes on. Even Hitler was British. In fact, the only “German” playing a German was actor Thomas Kretschmann who played the merciful Nazi in The Pianist, and Downfall.

The choice to cast the film with British actors and Tom Cruise using his regular voice was awful to hear. It truly ruined the film for me in an otherwise entertaining film. Am I the only one who feels this way? Since they were representing Germans, shouldn’t they have at least had German accents? 

Okay, since everyone is using the same accent…

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In Gladiator, everyone has a British accent, including American, Joaquin Phoenix. Since the Roman Empire expired in 476 CE, it’s easier for British actors to get away sounding like Romans since there is still an aura of the British Empire in the back closets of our minds; it’s easy for viewers to make that leap from one old empire to one recent one. It worked.

Nice job with the accent.

Some actors like Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis can pull off any accent they attempt.

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One reason why I’m a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio is he attempts the accent and succeeds. Whether in The Aviator as the Texan, The Departed as the Bostonian, or as Danny Archer in Blood Diamond, South African accents aren’t easy, and he made it look so.

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Viggo Mortensen is a underrated actor who can handle accents superbly. Wasn’t he perfect as Midwestern USA, Tom, in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence? But even more impressive as the Russian hit man in Eastern Promises (2007)?

It’s my favorite Cronenberg film. Just marvelous any way you look at it.

A favorite actress who’s great with accents is Kate Winslet. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I highly recommend. I loved her German accent in The Reader. These are just two performances showcasing her ability to erase that British voice and become a new character. It’s one reason why she’s at the top of the list of best actresses.

What’s your opinion about accents? What films missed and which performances stand out to you?

20 thoughts on “Accents in Films

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  1. Dick Van Dyke missed, badly, in Mary Poppins.

    Brad Pitt misses in Seven Years in Tibet.

    On the other end … Judi Dench’s accents are always very good. So are Tom Hardy’s. And so were Heath Ledger’s.

    And the way accents come and go in Mr. Nobody is downright fascinating.

    1. Hi James, yes, couldn’t agree more with your miss list. I sure miss Heath Ledger–good call. Recently read your review on Mr. Nobodybut have yet to sit down and watch it. Now I will be listening for the accents 🙂

      1. They aren’t great in their right, but they are one of the film’s intentional continuity breaks, which means characters keep and lose their accents seemingly at random, from scene to scene.

        And yeah. I miss Ledger, too. He was so good. So very good.

  2. “Yonder lies the Castle of my Fodder.”
    Is there anything more distracting and disastrous in film than an actor attempting and accent … and failing? Keanu Reeves in Dracula comes to mind.
    Some actors play is smart though: Costner wisely never even attempted an English accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. And nobody seemed to notice or care. ?
    Yet some actors, like Peter Ustinov, seem to be able to do ANY accent with ease.
    It’s a knack I guess. If you don’t have it, don’t try it.

    1. Hi J, Gosh, Keanu was horrible in Dracula, wasn’t he. Cosnter and the Robin Hood version is a great example of a film not working for me (why yes, I did care ;). Morgen Freeman attempted the muslim accent and did so just fine–oh, speaking of Freeman, he did a fine accent as Nelson Mandella in Invictus.

  3. Great post! I do think accents are important but if the actors are sooo terrible at it, might as well scrap it altogether as it might actually derail the movie as it takes you out of the film. I generally think the Brits/Aussies are much better at doing accents than Americans do, but of course there are always exceptions. I did a post a couple of years back on Much Ado About Accents. It’s always a fascinating topic!

  4. Interesting post Cindy. Accents are important and it never irks me more than when the Scots accent is always poorly delivered. One of the best Scots accents I’ve heard though was from Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland. Very subtly and realistically done.

    1. Good to hear! I’m so used to his cockney and it’s grown annoying to me. Yes, his Scottish accent in FN was good, thanks for reminding me. I reckon you dislike Mike Meyer’s attempts? 😉 Having lived in Scotland, I think it is a muddled, fun, beautiful accent. I could listen to you all for hours.

  5. I didn’t mind the fact that everyone in ‘Valkyrie’, didn’t have a German accent, but wish all had one accent, as they depicted the same community. Like in ‘Gladiator’; ( as you’ve mentioned as well); And like in ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959), William Wyler used British accents for actors playing Romans, and used American actors to play the Judaeans, thus it worked well.
    And I agree about Kate Winslet, she’s superb in whatever she comes in, including the two great films of hers mentioned above (both among my favourites); and yes she’s so believable with her accents.
    I love DiCaprio as well, he’s good with accents as well, but I did find him a bit artificial in ‘Blood Diamond’, though I love the film, but after reading this I realised it must have been a difficult accent to pull.
    From the ones you’ve missed, I’d say Elizabeth Taylor, especially in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ (1958), and the German accent Taylor sports in ‘The Comedians’ (1967). Ewan McGregor, in any non-Scottish role. Alec Guinness as the Indian Godbole in ‘A Passage to India’ (1984). Australian actress Cate Blanchett doing a very believable, Hollywood legend, Katharine Hepburn, so perfectly. The list goes on …. Ha!!
    I’ven’t seen the 2 Viggo Mortensen flicks yet.
    And, right at the top, isn’t that Peter Sellers in ‘Dr. Strangelove or……’ (64′), am yet to watch that as well. You haven’t mentioned anything on him. He was a superb actor too.

    1. Hi Nuwansen! Yes, yes, yes! Peter Sellers is another genius with the accent particularly Dr. Strangeglove. I referred to him by picture and figured you smart people would get it. Yes, Cate Blanchett is marvelous–even as the Russian antagonist in Indiana Jones was perfect. Glad you mentioned more of my favorites like Ewan McGregor and I forgot all about Elizabeth Taylor, so thankful you remembered. Sir Alec Guinness in A Passage to India is marvelous. Thank you! Don’t forget to watch Eastern Promises 🙂

      1. Yes, I’ll definitely chk out Eastern Promises.
        I remembered a couple or more flicks – the Americans, Forest Whitaker & Kerry Washington, and the British David Oyelowo, all playing Ugandan’s in ‘The Last King of Scotland’ (2006), & Morgan Freeman playing Mandela, and Matt Damon in ‘Invictus’ (2009).

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