People can’t stop talking about the way Jessica Chastain talks in The Zookeeper’s Wife. The Julliard-trained actress employs a strong Polish accent in the new Holocaust drama, and the results are … not great. “The Zookeeper’s Wife goes awry, as Jessica Chastain wrestles to sound as Polish as possible,” Variety says, while the Guardian notes, “Chastain goes all-in on her Polish accent, to the point of distraction.” Having seen the movie, we can confirm: It’s that bad. But what would have been the alternative? Is it better for actors to use their normal accents in period pieces, or try to be as accurate to the time and place as possible? Below, three Vulture editors make the case for their preferred option.
Actors Should Use Their Normal Accents
Look: I get it. Subtitles are so Bergman. Who needs subtitles when there’s enough English-language television on Netflix that you could stream the rest of your life away without encountering a single written word? But that still doesn’t explain why, if a movie were being set in Warsaw during the Second World War (to give an example for no reason in particular) that the characters would be speaking English with Polish accents.
Polish people don’t speak Polish with Polish accents. They just speak Polish. By afflicting the actors with what amounts to an affectation, the film may be signaling to the audience that, hey, these are Poles, but it’s also betraying the whole nature of language. Accents are a sign of otherness, a meaningful signifier of the migrant; characters are being othered that shouldn’t be othered, or at least not in that way. And the more Jessica Chastain sounds like a Polish person speaking English, the more the audience is going to be like, “Hey, Jessica Chastain worked really hard to sound like a Polish person speaking English!”
Honestly, I think that all movies should reflect the natural language of their setting and characters, and the choice to forego that realism puts the integrity of the film’s world-building at risk; Natalie Portman did it right. But if you are going to make your movie in English because, you know, you want people to see it — in the meantime, you’ll find me over here, yelling at clouds — then just let the actors use their natural accents. They often end up doing that anyway, since some work harder than others — and nobody works harder than Jessica Chastain.
Actors Should Try Period-Appropriate Accents, No Matter How Silly
Here’s the thing about bad or outlandish accents: They don’t really ruin good movies. The Promise wasn’t a bad movie just because Oscaar Isaac adopted an Ottoman-era Armenian accent, and Exodus: Gods and Kings didn’t have its dignity restored by the fact that its all-white cast of Biblical heroes were allowed to speak in whatever way they felt comfortable that day. Bad movies are just bad, but if you find yourself stuck in the depths of a big-screen catastrophe, consider how much the pleasant distraction of useless verbal verisimilitude can raise the entertainment value.
Oliver Stone’s epic Alexander was more boring than any movie about a globe-trotting ancient general had a right to be, but in between the usual parade of Brits playing everyone, Val Kilmer and Angelina Jolie stole the show by being straight crazy. As Philip II of Macedonia, Kilmer chewed his way through an accent that might best be described as “crotchety,” while Jolie decided to just sound like a Serbian witch. When you’re an actress assigned to play Colin Farrell’s mom, despite being the same age as him in real life, why not hiss every word through a thick Balkan accent? When you know the train is going to speed off the tracks, you might as well just have some fun. And would Far and Away be the schlock classic that it is without Tom Cruise’s best shot at sounding Irish? The answer is no.
And consider the times when a bad movie desperately needed a worse accent buried inside it to lighten the dour mood. The Counselor was one of the most excruciating film experiences since The Happening, and its single saving grace was the mysterious lost accent of Cameron Diaz’s character, Malkina. Malkina, for some reason, was Barbadian, and during filming Diaz delivered her lines with a thick Caribbean accent. Rumor has it that when studio execs saw a first pass at the movie, they demanded Diaz redub all of her lines in her normal voice, and if you watch that film closely you can tell her lip movements don’t quite match up with the sounds coming through the speakers. It’s a travesty, because The Counselor desperately needed Diaz going full Rihanna. Imagine how much better that entire movie would have been had Diaz delivered her speech about the erotic power of watching cheetahs hunt jack rabbits in a Barbadian accent? How much more fun would Troy have been if Pitt had gone for broke and delivered his lackluster “Immortality” speech through a thick Greek accent? This would be rewatchable entertainment for years!
Above all, though, an actor’s commitment to narratively appropriate dialects is exactly what gave us the “Freedom” speech from Braveheart, and there’s no way William Wallace could have summoned the sons of Scotland into battle against the English if he was speaking in an Australian accent. A moment like that is worth a hundred Zookeeper’s Wifes.
Actors Should Use British Accents
When it comes to accents, American audiences are not a particularly discerning lot. Were Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s made-up Sokovian accents in Age of Ultron convincingly Eastern European? No clue! But there’s one thing we do know: British accents do not sound like American accents. Therefore, if someone is talking British, that means they’re from somewhere else.
Since the Golden Age of Hollywood, filmmakers have used British accents to signify that characters are from anywhere east of Bar Harbor – and guess what, it works. In Spartacus, you don’t question why all the ancient Romans are talking like they just stepped off the stage of the Old Vic; your mind just subconsciously associates “Britain” with “aristocracy” and goes with it. The same goes for Les Mis and France, 300 and Greece, and Prince of Persia with, well, you get the picture.
And while it may be hard for Americans to elucidate the precise differences between a Liverpool accent (listen to “Polythene Pam”) and a West Country one (say “cider” like you’re a pirate), we have enough of a grasp of English class dynamics that a British accent can get us acquainted with the social structures of a world, even if it’s a magical fantasy world that doesn’t actually exist. Take Game of Thrones, where Davos Seaworth talks with a gruff Geordie accent, while Jaime Lannister speaks with very proper RP. (Neither is the actor’s natural accent.) Even before we know anything else about them, we can safely assume Davos is a humble commoner, and Jaime is a posh git.
Would The Zookeeper’s Wife be a better movie if Jessica Chastain had decided to start talking like Bridget Jones? It’s impossible to know. But all I can say is: Blimey guv, I ’ope so, innit?