Every film lover has a Favourite Accent Fail (FAF). Whether the Transatlantic Cockney of Dick Van Dyke (Mary Poppins) or Don Cheadle (Ocean's Eleven), neither born, it's fair to conjecture, within the sound of the Bow Bells. Or the seesawing Irish of Tom Cruise (Far And Away), Tommy Lee Jones (Blown Away) or repeat offender Brad Pitt (The Devil's Own, Snatch – do note the comma here).
Some try too hard: think Nic Cage What-A-Mistake-A-To-Make-A-ing his way through Captain Corelli's Mandolin in cartoon Italian despite actually being (part) Italian. Some not at all: recall Keanu Reeves' Victorian surfer dude in Bram Stoker's Dracula. A personal FAF is Pierce Brosnan in 1988 obscurity Taffin, mangling his own Irish brogue with speech patterns that have never before troubled the human tongue. Just Google, “Then MAYBE you SHOULDN’T be LIVING HERE!” Truly, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.
Problem is, actors don’t know if they can pull off a certain accent until they try, and by then it’s often too late. Justin Kurzel’s magnificent Macbeth had one tiny but crucial flaw: none of the main cast managed to sound consistently Scottish. But the real question is not why they failed, but why they bothered in the first place. Macbeth was written 400 years ago by an Englishman, directed by an Aussie, adapted by Americans and stars a German-Irish man and a French woman – did anyone really expect a sociolinguistic study of Dark Ages Scots?
Plus, these things don’t need to be accurate, just convincing. And film actors – even ones as fine as Fassbender, Cotillard, Harris, and Considine – are always most believable in their own voices. The truth comes not from accents, costumes, accoutrements, but from inside.
Victorian performer Henry Irving summed up the secrets of his craft thus: “Speak clearly and be human.” And this is even truer on film than on stage because the camera doesn’t just detect bullshit, it magnifies it. Look at the careers of Sean Connery, Michael Caine, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood: four acting Oscars between them, and exactly as many successful accents. Admittedly they aren’t the most versatile of performers, but they convince when they’re playing minutely modulated versions of themselves, just like Cruise, Pitt, and Cage.
Character actors can disappear into their parts because we don’t know anything about them, but stars can’t (and arguably shouldn’t) hide who they are. It’s why we keep watching them. Yes, some of the big names get away with it – Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman, for example, do an excellent posh English – but it feels like they’re playing caricatures, not people, giving impressions rather than performances, so it’s harder to forget that what you’re watching is fiction.
Film is a series of lies attempting to tell the truth, and every single element that calls unnecessary attention to itself – whether it’s a false note or a fake nose, eye-rolling CGI or ear-splitting Cockney – only takes us further away that truth. Or is it just me?