Angelina Jolie's attempt at clipped English vowels in The Tourist misses its mark, but then Hollywood has a proud tradition of dodgy accents.
Angelina Jolie not the worst for phoney English vowels
It's unfair, we know, but a great accent in a movie, even an excellent accent, will never get as much recognition as a bad one. Take, for instance, Bridget Jones's Diary, the very British comedy from 2001 starring the very American Renée Zellweger. What a fuss there was in Britain when the Texan actress landed the role of the hapless and quintessentially British single girl Jones, trying to carve out a decent life for herself in London while dealing with numerous questionable jobs and even more questionable men.
In the event, the UK exhaled en masse when it saw how seamlessly Zellweger fitted into the role. So immaculate, indeed, was her accent that, fast-forward nine years, the only thing mentioned nowadays is the amount of weight the slender star had to pile on for the role.
A bad accent, on the other hand - one so cringeworthy that it all but ruins whatever film it is part of - will stick in the memory far longer than the movie itself. The most recent example of this is the much-hyped thriller The Tourist, starring Angelina Jolie as Elise, a mysterious woman on the run, and a particularly straggly Johnny Depp as Frank, the tourist of the title. Jolie's attempt at a clipped English accent has won her few fans, but she's by no means the worst offender - not by a long stretch.
Step forward Keanu Reeves. Canadian he may be, but there's no arguing with the fact that in every role, be he a 19th-century toff (in Bram Stoker's Dracula) or a chain-smoking pessimist with the ability to see angels and demons (in the 2005 thriller Constantine), he, like, totally, sounds like a bodacious Californian surfer.
That raises the question, of course, which is worse: the actor who attempts an accent and fails, or the one who seems to make no effort at all to get it right? The clan chieftain of the second lot must be the granddaddy of cinema, Sean Connery, who, to give him his dues, probably realised a long time ago that the only accent he was ever going to be able to pull off was, well, his own.
There's no denying that his rich, gruff Scottish lilt is wonderful, but that doesn't mean we can let him off the hook entirely. Whether he's playing an Irishman (in The Untouchables, and for which he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), a Russian (as a submarine captain in The Hunt for Red October) or English royalty (as King Richard the Lionheart in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), Connery sticks to the Scottish. And don't even get us started on Highlander: it may have been filmed in the land of Connery's birth, but the actor was actually playing a Spaniard, Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez. His accent? Aye, that's right.
According to the Los Angeles-based vocal coach, Joel Goldes, who has taught the likes of Jim Broadbent, Nicolas Cage, and Mike Myers, Spanish and Russian accents are among the easiest to pick up: "It sort of depends on the person, but maybe French or Spanish; sometimes Russian. As for the hardest? Definitely, Welsh is tricky, South African is very tricky, and Scottish is generally tricky. Irish can also be hard."
But every so often, Connery with his unshakeable Scottish twang has been overshadowed by an actor with an even worse ear for accent. Yes, we're talking about you, Kevin Costner. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is an entertaining film, but Costner's portrayal of Robin Hood as an American is a brilliant example of cinematic licence crossing the line. We don't know about you, but we were always under the impression that Hood was from Nottingham (with the stress on the first syllable, not the last, thank-you), in the east Midlands of England.
Thankfully, for every actor who has failed to affect another accent, there comes another who manages to immerse him or herself in the role so thoroughly that you could be forgiven for having the wool pulled over your eyes. Long before Gwyneth Paltrow laid eyes on her terribly British husband, Chris Martin, the actress was wowing cinema-goers with her pitch-perfect posh English accents in Emma (1996), based on the Jane Austen novel, Sliding Doors (1998) and Shakespeare in Love (1998), in a role that won her the Oscar for Best Actress.
And it seems a crying shame that Toby Jones's scarily accurate portrayal of the writer Truman Capote, in the 2006 film Infamous, has been all but forgotten by the public.
Sometimes, however, a bad accent is just what the doctor - or director - ordered. Making a great movie even better, the scenes in Some Like It Hot, in which Joe adopts a wonderfully strange English twang - which the actor, Tony Curtis, modelled on his friend and mentor Cary Grant - are among the finest moments in comic cinema. As his friend Jerry (Jack Lemmon) scolds: "And where did you get that phoney accent? Nobody 'talks loike thet'!"
Well, Jerry, nobody's perfect.
* Zaineb Al Hassani