‘Red Sparrow’ and the Issue of Movie Accents

Using English as a stand-in for other languages never ends well.
Red Sparrow Accents
By  · Published on March 2nd, 2018

Using English as a stand-in for other languages never ends well.

There is a brief moment in Red Sparrow where a Russian spy is talking to an American spy in Budapest and switches from “Russian” accented English to actually speaking Russian. She then defaults back to English. But they are in Budapest, and she is a Russian talking to an American.

So, when Jennifer Lawrence reverts to English, are we supposed to imagine Dominika Egorova is speaking Russian, English, or Hungarian?

Hardly a review of Red Sparrow has been published so far that hasn’t brought up the bad Russian accents. What I haven’t seen anyone address yet is whether or not it is even possible for Russian-accented English standing in for actual Russian to ever be good.

Because I don’t think it is.

English language films tend to do something films from other parts of the world rarely ever do, and that is use accented English as a stand-in for a non-English language. You don’t, for example, see Germans making films where everyone is walking around New York City speaking American-accented German. (Sounds ridiculous, right?) We frequently even take it one step further, and just sort of sub in British-English accents for anywhere European, especially in films dealing with the upper echelons of society. It doesn’t matter if it’s the court of Louis XVI of France or Alexander II of Russia — it’s the Queen’s English for everybody. There’s a particularly delicious irony one feels watching a featurette for some Paris-set period piece in which the costume and set designers are going over the huge lengths they went to in the name of historical accuracy while the characters are all speaking in British RP.

Look, I’m not some starry-eyed idealist. I get why movies do this. American audiences, in particular, have a reputation for avoiding movies that require reading — that is, films with subtitles — like the plague. Non-English-speaking audiences are more used to dealing with subtitles or the sad joke that is most dubbing. While I can hardly even imagine the farce that is watching a film supposed to be set in your country in which the dialogue has to be dubbed into your language, I understand why it happens (even though it’s absurd).

It is perfectly valid to call out, say, Russell Crowe and/or Kevin Costner’s attempts at Englishness in their respective Robin Hood adaptations, or about 90% of all non-Irish attempts at various Irish accents (Cameron Diaz in Gangs of New York, Gerard Butler in P.S. I Love You, Tom Cruise in Far and Away, the list goes on). Once you venture into judging accents originating from non-English-speaking regions when the language being spoken by the actor is still English, the territory becomes a lot more complicated.

There’s an important distinction that needs to be made. When talking about Russian-accented English in movies, we can be dealing with one of two things: a Russian character speaking English as a second language, or a Russian character speaking Russian-accented English as a cipher for speaking Russian. The former is a scenario that actually occurs in reality, the second is an artificial construct.

When people learn a second language, the way in which they speak that second language — including their accent — is not just influenced by the accent in which they speak their native language, but by how they learn that second language. If, in learning English, you are predominantly exposed to American English, you will end up speaking English with a different accent than if predominantly exposed to British English. Individuals from the same region with identical accents in their native language that learn the same second language in different environments will end up speaking that second language with different accents, even if their fluency levels are identical.

“Strongly” accented language generally correlates with being in relatively insular communities — that is, from having limited (or no) exposure to other accents. Learning a second language mandates being exposed to, and influenced by, other accents. People who become fully fluent in a second language sometimes reach a point at which a listener would not be able to guess they were not a native speaker, “losing” the influence of their native language in how they speak this second language, so to speak. However, “accurately” speaking one language with an accent exclusively linked to another language — what films try to do when they use Russian-accented English as a proxy for Russian characters speaking Russian in Russia — is fundamentally impossible.

An actor can realistically portray Russian-accented English in a Russian character for whom English is a second language because that is an actual scenario that exists. Trying to have an actor speak English with a 100% pure Russian accent as a stand-in for Russian is trying to achieve a hypothetical that can never be realized in practice.

Are the Russian accents in Red Sparrow bad, sometimes to the point of distraction? Absolutely. But until the day we decide to populate films set in Russia with actors actually speaking Russian, we might as well make peace with the fact that one language pretending to be another is inherently ridiculous and doomed to sound like it.

Related Topics: , , ,

Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.