Words speak louder than actions

Anne Hathaway has been criticised for her Yorkshire accent in the film One Day, so why do filmmakers insist on getting US actors to attempt British accents?
Anne Hathaway’s attempt at a Yorkshire accent has been criticised.
Anne Hathaway’s attempt at a Yorkshire accent has been criticised.

Speak to anyone who's read David Nicholls's best-selling novel One Day, from 2009, and a misty-eyed reverie comes over them. Millions took the book, exploring the bittersweet 20-year relationship between the best friends Emma and Dexter, to their hearts. A film version was inevitable, but also something of a gamble because one of the book's many triumphs is that it instils a sense of ownership of Emma and what she stands for as an insecure, soft-hearted frump from the north of England. She's certainly not the blueprint for a sexy, grade A American star, straight outta Brooklyn. So the knives have been out for Anne Hathaway right from the casting announcement last year. As the film is finally released, they've merely been sharpened - and directed at her attempts to sound English.

"Hathaway's accent is too wayward to convince," said Time Out London this week, backed up by scores of eager fans who attended previews and posted comments online. The general consensus is that it's only in moments of high drama that Hathaway appears to remember she's supposed to be from Yorkshire. Having not seen the film yet, it's unfair to completely trash her efforts, but even the trailer sees traces of her native tongue creep through. And when Hathaway herself is telling theNew York Daily News: "I used to think that I was the bee's knees when it came to a British accent, but now I know better," she becomes a pretty easy target. Incidentally, that interview also had Hathaway boasting: "I'm much better at a New York accent." You'd like to hope so, seeing as that's where she's from.

Critics have, right from the start, asked why a British actress wasn't cast in the role. And it does seem like a strange decision. The likes of Romola Garai, Emily Blunt or even Carey Mulligan (who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the One Day director Lone Scherfig's previous film, An Education) would all have been a more natural fit.

The answer may be that it's probably worth annoying a few obsessive British fans if it means the far larger and less forgiving American market can understand what's being said on screen. Memorably, the makers of Trainspotting - one of the outstanding British films of the past 15 years - briefly considered subtitling it for US viewers, before redubbing the movie to make it clearer. So authentic Yorkshire accents may not have gone down well in One Day.

Still, in the New York Daily News Hathaway also professed not to care what people said about her efforts. If only Russell Crowe had been so relaxed when his bumpy English accent came under scrutiny in last year's Robin Hood. Or was it Irish? Perhaps Australian? No one quite knew, so it seemed fair enough for the BBC's Mark Lawson to ask him about it on live radio. "You've got dead ears, mate," growled Crowe. "You've seriously got dead ears if you think that's an Irish accent." Unsurprisingly, the interview didn't last much longer.

Crowe has good company in the British accent hall of shame, which features everyone from Keanu Reeves in Dracula (so plummy, it's literally impossible to take anything he says in the film seriously), to Natalie Portman's efforts in V for Vendetta, in which the act of speaking genuinely looks like it's causing her physical pain. But if Oscars could be handed out for Worst Accent In A Film, Dick Van Dyke's endearing but hilarious attempt at playing a Londoner in Mary Poppins is, essentially, unbeatable.

In fact, when an American takes on a British accent, it's actually a pleasant surprise when they pass muster. Renée Zellweger did an impressive turn as Bridget Jones (and may do so again if this week's rumours of a third film are to be believed), Gwyneth Paltrow was spot on in Sliding Doors and Nicole Kidman got away with it in The Hours - if only because all the attention was on her distracting fake nose. It'll certainly be interesting to see how the very American Meryl Streep approaches playing the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The trailer for the biopic seems to suggest Streep has got Thatcher just right - which she must if the film is to work at all.

Are the British just too precious about the way their characters speak? Maybe. But they're hardly blameless themselves. Apparently, Colin Firth's attempt at a southern American accent in the forthcoming Main Street is laughably poor - and we can report that from the trailer alone he seems stuck in a strange vortex where North Carolina and east London are one and the same place. Which just goes to show, even Oscar winners struggle with their accents from time to time. No wonder Hathaway is not all that bothered if she doesn't sound like she was born in Yorkshire.

For an interview with Anne Hathaway, grab a copy of The National's M magazine on September 3???

Published: August 22, 2011 04:00 AM

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