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The Vacuum Issue 1 spacer Issue 1
What is he Saying? Accents in Film
by Nicky Carey
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If there's one thing certain in film, along with the baddie always being English, and Spielberg films being overly sentimental, it's that anyone attempting to do a Northern Irish accent without having been born here is doomed to fail miserably.
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An early example was Odd Man Out in which James Mason's wounded, on-the-run IRA man staggers through the nighttime backstreets of Belfast looking for a place to die, no doubt familiar to anyone who has sampled the City Centre's nightlife. The only shock in this rather pedestrian film is perennial Englishman Mason's attempt at a Belfast accent, something akin to hearing the Queen put on her best Belfast brogue.
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Things haven't improved much in modern times, when Hollywood arrived in search of another political issue to hang a thriller on. Take Sean Bean in Patriot Games. Playing a rogue IRA man (you'll notice a trend here), his accent is one of the more reputable attempts, though that's not to say it's any good. It takes the late Richard Harris playing a NORAID style fundraiser, however, to prove that being born in Ireland is no obstacle to a woeful accent.
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Of course it's the Americans who really excel when it comes to bad Northern Irish accents. Brad Pitt famously spent a week in Belfast "researching" his role as an IRA man in The Devil's Own. Hanging around The Crown a lot, he presumably picked up tips for the accent from all the other tourists in there, such is its awfulness. His questionable accent at least matches the films questionable politics, but Hollywood has never really got things right on that score, have they?
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There are not many things you can say Mickey Rourke is better at than Brad Pitt but bad Northern Irish accents are one of them. In A Prayer For The Dying, he starts off by blowing up a bus load of schoolchildren, an atrocity you think is bad enough until he opens his mouth. And just when you think things can't get any worse, Bob Hoskins turns up as yet another IRA man. Now I bet there are those of you who thought Bob Hoskins couldn't possibly make himself sound more ridiculous than he already does. Oh, but he can.
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Hollywood again showed its sensitive handling of the Irish issue in The Jackal. Casting Richard Gere as yet another of our sympathetic freedom fighters, his accent can at least be described as Irish, though he's not fussy which part. It veers from Northern to Southern often within the same sentence.
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Perhaps the ultimate low point, though, is the sensitively titled Blown Away. Tommy Lee Jones plays a *sigh* renegade IRA bomber who escapes from some mythical, rain-lashed, cliff top prison full of nasty British guards by using his toilet (don't ask). Off he goes to Boston to terrorise the natives and former protégé Jeff Bridges who has abandoned the cause to join the Boston Police Dept as a bomb disposal expert. Note to all IRA bombers sadly out of work since that pesky peace process; the American police must be on the lookout for men with good bomb related experience. Bridges, haunted by his terrorist past (cue flashbacks to the hellish war-torn streets of Belfast), and doing his best Irish accent when he remembers to, obviously recognises the work of his old mentor and, well, things just get sillier from then on. Now I don't know much about Bostonians. Maybe they deserve to get bombed. What they don't deserve, however, is Tommy Lee Jones piss poor, sub-Give My Head Peace, Ar Jim Lad wrangling of our native accent, a performance which makes his turn as Two-Face in Batman Forever look like a tour-de-force of thespian subtlety.
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All hope is not lost, however. Very occasionally someone turns up and surprises us. Daniel Day Lewis in The Boxer and In The Name Of The Father excelled himself. This man could play a blind, one-legged Belfast Housewife and get away with it. And Ian Hart in Nothing Personal was similarly impressive, which bodes well for his upcoming portrayal of Beirut hostage Brian Keenan.
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At the end of the day though, we cannot blame filmmakers for trying their best to make us intelligible. I know whenever I hear a Northern Irish accent on film or TV I struggle to understand it, so imagine what it's like for the average American. So really it's our own fault. If we all talked proper they wouldn't have to make us sound so awful.
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What Did He Say?
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'BOUT
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What Did He Say?
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YER
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What Did He Say?
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WEE
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What Did He Say?
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LAD
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