Friday, February 26, 2010
Weekly Rant (Sort Of): Speaking in Tongues
The Last Station, based on a semi-fictional novel by Jay Parini, begins with Leo (Lev) Tolstoy in his final months of life. The year is 1910 and Tolstoy is both a famous novelist (War and Peace and Anna Karenina) and a famous spiritual figure, inspiring a religion of sorts that rejects violence, sex, wealth and private property. The film, directed by Michael Hoffman, explores both the man and his movement in a manner that is simultaneously comprehensive and scattered – much like the devotion between the film’s two main characters. Starring a very-bearded Christopher Plummer and a still stunningly beautiful (and sexy) Helen Mirren, The Last Station is at its core an examination of the complex relationship between Leo and Sofya Tolstoy, two people who loved and fought with equal passion. The film’s principal pleasure is Plummer and Mirren’s knack for playing both sides of the relationship convincingly. Screaming at one another in one scene, playfully rolling around in bed in the next, each moment between Leo and Sofya feels true, real, authentic.
What isn’t so authentic, however, is The Last Station’s Russianness. This is a film with characters named Bulgakov, Chertkov and Sergeyenko, and yet the performers speak English with accents that sound like a strange combination of flattened British and whatever accent Paul Giamatti uses in the John Adams miniseries. And that brings us to this week’s rant, which, truth be told, is more of a question (sorry, Kevin J. Olson).
Because in addition to seeing The Last Station, in recent weeks I’ve been preparing for the Steve McQueen Blog-a-thon by rewatching such classics as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape (as if I needed an excuse), two films in which Mexican and German characters, respectively, speak exclusively in English, even amongst themselves. This use of accented English in portrayals of non-English-speaking characters used to be the norm, but in recent years, as Hollywood has warmed to the idea that subtitles don’t ensure box office ruin, the trend has shifted ever so slightly so that now even vapid popcorn fare like Avatar dabbles in some non-English dialogue. That said, the foreign-tongued speakers in any American-made film are more often than not the story’s villains, suggesting that filmmakers might be more interested in stoking their target audience’s fears of “the other” than in attainting racial, ethnic and linguistic authenticity. Nevertheless, regardless of the motivation, we have reached the point that when an art-house flick like The Last Station doesn’t go so far as to adopt Russian accents for its Russian characters it seems, well, odd.
Is it possible that Harrison Ford ruined the Russian accent for everyone with his performance in K-19: The Widowmaker? No, that’s not the question at the heart of this post. These are the questions I pose to you: (1) In this day and age is it actually inappropriate for non-English-speaking characters to be performed in English, or is it just distracting, or neither? (2) If a movie about non-English-speaking characters settles for using English, would you prefer to have the actors adopt an accent suggesting the language being spoken (like Nazis in an Indiana Jones movie or Mexican mice in a Speedy Gonzales cartoon), or would you prefer that the actors speak in their own “natural” English accents, whatever that might be? If the latter, (3) what if allowing the actors to speak in their natural voices leads to an American actor (say, Giamatti) and an English actor (say, Mirren) speaking with different accents despite playing people who speak the same language? In general, when it comes to non-English-speaking characters being performed in English, what are your thoughts?
Please, discuss …