Sunday, August 14, 2011

Speakin’ English

I went to see the final Harry Potter movie this weekend.  If you’ve never seen a Harry Potter film this is not the one to start with.  Mostly because it’s the end of the story and why on earth would anyone start with the end of the story?

But also because it would be incredibly hard to follow if you didn’t know the rest of the story.  I had read all the books and seen almost all of the films, including the last one, and I still found myself lost at moments, trying to remember exactly what they were looking for and why.  Was it seven Horcruxes and three Deathly Hallows?  I think so.  That’s a lot of things to be looking for.  And some needed to be destroyed and others just needed to be found. 

JK Rowling kept it all straight in the novels but didn’t make it easy on the screenwriters.  And the screenwriters and film editors didn’t even attempt to make it any easier for the audience.  There was no “Previously on Harry Potter” prequel moment and some of the cutting between Harry and Voldemort made it hard to tell exactly what was going on. So, while I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t say it was the best film ever made.

It was nice to see the kids all grown up and finishing what they started though.  I foresee a big American film future for Harry and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson).  I’m not so sure about Rupert Grint, who played Ron Weasley.  My advice to him, if he wants to make it big with American audiences, would be to choose to do a character with an easier accent for American audiences to understand than the accent he used for Ron Weasley.  Or, if he must use that accent, he should speak much more slowly.  I watch a lot of British television and film so I’m probably as well attuned to the various British accents as anyone in this country and I missed half of his dialog.  For all I know he was pitch perfect with his accent, and bravo if he was.  But American audiences are lazy and he needs to make it easier on us to understand him.

But maybe he doesn’t care about America.  Which would be fine.  There’s loads of great theater, television and film in Britain and we can always see him on Masterpiece Theater or BBC America.

I’ve been thinking about accents lately for some reason.  Via James Fallows’ blog, I found this great video demonstrating 21 different accents of English speaking people:

What I found interesting was that I found the accents of non-Native English speakers easier to understand than some of the native English speaking accents. There is a certain Australian accent I find very difficult to understand.  I find some London accents difficult.  And I often find Northern Ireland accents unintelligible.

Of course there are certain American accents that are almost impossible to understand.  I remember reading that the makers of The Wire didn’t want the actors to attempt true Baltimore accents because no one would understand them.  When I went to see Winter’s Bone I thought they did a decent job on a softened Ozarks accent but knew they could never have attempted to try full Ozarks accents if they wanted anyone to be able to understand the dialog.

I just saw a trailer for a new movie starring Colin Firth in which he uses an American southern accent – North Carolina, if I remember correctly. I hope he pulls it off.  The thing about an American regional accent like that is that most Americans can understand them but most Americans can’t do the accent perfectly themselves (except North Carolinans of course) so we don’t get too picky if it is slightly off.  As long as it sounds southern.

I think one reason someone like Colin Firth can be a popular American star using a British accent is because he generally uses an easy to understand British accent.  Maybe it isn’t the old fashioned BBC accent, but it is crisp and easy to understand.  Combine that with his good looks and you’ve got a  “leading man” type here in America.  Much the same way that George Clooney uses a standard American Midwestern Accent so that, combined with his good looks, he can be a “leading man”.  If, for instance, Colin Firth generally used an estuary accent or if George Clooney generally used a Mississippi accent, they might work a lot but their roles would more likely be those of a “character actor”.   Not that there’s anything wrong with being a character actor; in some ways it sounds like a more interesting job than being a leading man.

On the other hand, someone like Michael Caine who started out as a character actor, and is not the typical “leading man”,  is definitely a movie star.  Michael Caine doesn’t use the lah dee dah BBC accent and that might have kept him at character actor level for all time even though he’s a great actor.  BUT I think he broke out of character actor into “actor who can carry a movie” because he speaks at a slow enough pace that it is easy to get into the flow and understand what he is saying. 

You notice that none of this has anything to do with actual acting ability.  All of these men are great actors, but that isn’t the point.  If you are a great actor but no one can understand you, no one wants to pay money just to see you.  Rupert Grint should pay attention when he plans his next roles.