Anna Karenina … in a British Accent?

Photo of Anna Karenina

Still from a 1914 Russian film of 'Anna Karenina'

This week, British actress Keira Knightley revealed that the upcoming film adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina will feature British accents instead of Russian.  Quoth Knightley:

“It’s going to be an English accent. It’s always very tricky when you are doing something that is meant to be in another language. Because you are like, what accent should it be, should you do that? Well, if you’ve got a Russian accent, why aren’t you speaking Russian? It’s an English-language film. So we have taken the decision that it’s an English accent.”

I share Knightley’s ambivalence about approaching a Russian-set project with English-speaking actors. Almost any stylistic choice has its limitations.  On the one hand, you can make actors speak with some hint of a foreign accent. This strategy has been employed in such celebrated films as Schindler’s List, The Reader and Before Night Falls.  The advantages?  It helps create a ‘sense of place,’ it avoids the cognitive dissonance inherent in using an American or British accent, and it allows the film to be cast with great foreign-accented actors.

This strategy has its problems, of course.  One might argue that the effect distances audiences from the story, creating a sense of ‘foreignness’ when universality is desired.  And if the dialect work goes awry (as it sometimes does), your film may be more remembered for its bad accents than its story.

The other strategy is to use a British or American accent.  This is perhaps more logical, as Russians and Cubans don’t speak to one another like foreigners.  More ‘standard accents’ (presumably Received Pronunciation or General American English) may bring audiences closer to the story, lending an air of intimacy and modernity to the proceedings.

But this option can backfire as well.  A few years ago, I wrote a play set in 19th-Century Vienna.  The director and I made the decision early on that actors would employ American accents.  And while our preference was better than the alternative, I can’t say it didn’t bring its share of problems.  Contemporary accents can easily make things sound too contemporary, too American, too British, and end up taking the audience out of the story as much as any foreign accent would.

Anna Karenina is my favorite novel, so I’m quite biased here.  But I think the folks behind this film adaptation have the right idea.  Much of the appeal of Tolstoy’s novels lies in the breathtaking immediacy of his writing: characters from centuries past come to life as if they were sitting in your living room.  Having them speak in stilted Russian accents could easily destroy this quality.

Tolstoy also lived and wrote before the Bolshevik revolution.  For better or worse, it will take some time before Americans and Brits shrug off our association of the Russian accent with the Soviet Union.  This was an author writing about a different time and a very different country.  Anything that evokes thoughts of contemporary Russian politics should be avoided.

Of course, there will be dissenting opinions about this.  We won’t know how the accents work (or don’t) until the film comes out.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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11 Responses to Anna Karenina … in a British Accent?

  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    This problem is like the 800-pound gorilla in the room. When I was a kid, I thought that playing Shakespeare required an RP accent; nothing else would do. Today, Shakespeare is routinely performed here with American accents. If authenticity is the goal, David Crystal has spearheaded a move to play Shakespeare with original pronunciation. The Globe has done it, as well as a performance or two in Kansas. While I applaud the effort, the real question is: How much verisimilitude is enough for the audience to believe in the performance? Coleridge famously spoke of the “willing suspension of disbelief” when approaching a literary work. I think he was right on the money. To take it to absurd extremes, shouldn’t “Anna Karenina” be played only in Russian? With subtitles? Art, like every human interchange, requires compromise.

    • trawicks says:

      There’s also the question of how the Russian nobility would have spoken. I would assume (though I can’t say for sure) that they had quite a different dialect than the type of Russian we’re used to hearing. Multilingualism, after all, was a badge of pride for their class, and I would be surprised if all those years being tutored in French didn’t impact their Russian.

  2. lynneguist says:

    The problem I have in these situations is that any American actors (and there usually are some) will then have to adopt a British accent and will be pilloried for it, even though no one in the film is using an authentic accent for the story. At least if it were with Russian accents, we could make fun of everybody.

  3. Josh McNeill says:

    I kinda hate hearing native English accents in these situations. I watched a movie set in Germany recently where one of the actors had a heavy NY accent and it was ridiculous. That’s an extreme example but still. As far as universality, isn’t a story that has it effective regardless of the dialect? I’ve been enthralled by many subtitled movies even. Also, this seems like the perfect way to shake the Soviet Union stereotype: start displaying Russians who clearly have nothing to do with the USSR.

    Those would be my arguments against using English accents, anyway.

  4. trawicks says:

    @Lynne,

    A similar problem arises when everyone isn’t on the same page about what “British accent” means. I saw a play with a mixed British-American cast a few years back where one of the British actors made the choice to give his Czech character a very contemporary, suburban London-type accent during the scenes set in Czechoslovakia. This contrasted quite a bit with his American scene partners, who spoke with much plummier, “neutral” accents.

    @Josh,

    This sounds very subjective (it IS very subjective), but I find Tolstoy uniquely odd spoken when dramatized with Russian accents. Chekhov too, come to think of it. Something about the modernity of those writers prevents me from seeing their characters as specifically Russian, even though they are obviously a product of their place and time.

  5. Charles Sullivan says:

    To many Americans a British accent sounds foreign enough such that it will convey the foreign-country quality.

    British accents and their connection to foreignness (and sinisterness) have been par for the course in the history of American film making. (not that that makes it right, of course).

  6. Andy says:

    I usually don’t mind accents in films set in the distant past. I know the issue of accents in films set in Medieval Europe or Ancient Rome has been discussed before. In my view, if you’re not going to speak the language, there’s really no need fake an accent. If you’re going to do it, do it right. For example, I think films like “Gorky Park” and “The Hunt For Red October” probably should have forgone any attempts at speaking Russian or using Russian accents.

  7. trawicks says:

    @Charles,

    I can’t help but post this Eddie Izzard bit! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKfeJ2mw0LU

    @Andy,

    As I hinted I think the Reader did a fairly good job balancing these two strategies: the actors spoke with a very, very slight German accent, just enough to suggest a German setting but not enough to distract.

    • IVV says:

      Other than Kate Winslet, though, weren’t all the actors German in the earlier scenes? I know that the young main actor was German, and had to improve his English for the role.

      • trawicks says:

        I believe they mostly were, yes. Perhaps that’s why the film found an effortless balance in this regard: many of the actors had a perfectly subtle accent to begin with.

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