Napoleon Bonaparte hailed from Corsica. We don’t have any recordings of his voice or even much of an approximation of how he sounded thanks to centuries of history passing in the interim period. The chances are pretty strong, however, that he did not speak like a spacey valley boy. In Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, which opens in theatres this week, the eponymous general is played by Joaquin Phoenix, a California guy who long stopped even trying to do accents in film. It’s not as though anyone expected him or Scott to commit to a very difficult accent for the part. This is, after all, the director who had every performer in The Last Duel doing their normal accents, verisimilitude be damned. Yet the Napoleon accents seem a touch too out-there for some, a blatant breaking of the rules of film that one be immersed in the fantasy created by a director and actor.
This is nothing new. One of my favourite films of all-time is Amadeus, wherein an almost-exclusively American cast eschew Austrian, Italian, and German accents in favour of simply being themselves. Kevin Costner and team told the story of Robin Hood with dialect straight from an ’80s buddy comedy. Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is somehow funnier and more scathing through merit of its British-American cast simply pretending that they’re all Soviet without even trying. Many storytellers make the decision to put accent work to the side, while others gallop towards it for a variety of reasons pertaining to accuracy and creative immersion. Neither option is bad, although audiences are certainly more primed for the latter than the former.
Accents of any and all kinds are bloody hard to do. It’s one of the toughest parts of the gig as well as the most thankless. It requires nuances and practice that can take up huge chunks of rehearsal time. Accent work is taught in many drama schools, but it’s not an all-encompassing education and often seems more concerned with stomping out working-class dialects than expanding one’s range. Many actors maintain the accent for the entire production lest they risk dropping it and being unable to get back into its rhythms (and no, this isn’t method acting.) If you fail, it’s the thing that everyone will call out, regardless of how good the rest of your performance is. Even if you succeed, the rewards aren’t always great, and it leaves little room for more esoteric character choices. Sometimes, you watch a film and you can practically see the actor struggling to get the syllables out in the right order with the correct inflection. It’s distracting, often more so than the accents themselves.
English language cinema has instilled in us a series of rules that ultimately don’t make much sense outside of the big and small screen. We have conceptions of what certain people, groups, cultures, etc, should sound like, regardless of whether or not anyone ever spoke like that in real life. Consider the impact the transatlantic accent had on Hollywood, creating an entire inflection that exists exclusively in Golden Age cinema for people like Cary Grant.
Most accent work we hear in such films is intended as an act of cultural shorthand rather than accuracy. We know that French emperors didn’t speak like RADA graduates and Roman gladiators weren’t copying their voices from Guy Ritchie movies, but making those choices immediately defines for the audience a class dynamic that they can understand. This is why we hear this strange muddled public school English vying with working-class Northern so often in cinema and television (hello, Game of Thrones.) For some reason, this doesn’t distract audiences as much as no accent work at all. Even in Napoleon, having the extremely modern American-sounding Phoenix is a contrast with the primarily British cast, positioning him as the outcast worming his way into the upper echelons of power.
Historical accuracy in cinema is one of those sticky subjects that inspires a lot of discourse, good faith or otherwise. Ridley Scott certainly has little time for the Napoleon experts offering footnotes to his movie. Art can and should have the ability to explore our pasts, presents, and future beyond the scope of the oft-limited details of recorded history. Often, film is the most effective tool we have to delve into the unexplored crevasses of our lives, particularly for marginalized voices. The flip side, of course, is that film can equally exacerbate outdated tropes and blatant falsehoods. There’s a reason so many people were concerned that Sir Ridley would portray Bonaparte as some sort of noble hero (although he definitely doesn’t, for those who were concerned.) In that context, does accent accuracy become a duty or a hindrance?
I’m not sure most filmmakers think that far ahead, to be honest. The more pressing concerns are ones of funding, audience appeal, and hanging out with the people you choose to. Scott probably wasn’t going to get Napoleon made with an unknown Corsican actor who could do an accent that would pass for accurate. That film will probably be made by an actual French person, and the portrayal of the title figure will differ greatly for a variety of reasons that may or may not have to do with historical fidelity. I think most audiences would rather have an actor they love than one they don’t, which is a discussion for a whole other day. And then there’s the issue of sheer laziness. Subtitles are a mere one-inch barrier but that’s still a block for too many, and accents follow a similar trajectory. There’s a reason most English-language speakers’ Netflix accounts default to dubs for foreign-language programming, whether they like it or not.
I must admit that, for me, I’ll take a great performance without an accent over a middling one with an accent any day. Yet the industry’s seeming inability to find room for both is indicative of much in Hollywood’s narrow mindset. It reminds me of so many modern musicals featuring great actors whose singing voices are wobbly at best, and the argument that it’s the performance that matters more than the song. Broadway would surely disagree. In a business concerned with compromise in the name of commercial clout over artistic, it’s curious that accents are often a justified sacrifice. Ambition is frequently exceeded by these demands, and audiences’ hunger for full immersion is sidelined. So, for now, perhaps we should stop worrying and love those wacky American Bonapartes.