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The Sean Connery Effect: Pardon My Accent…

Sean Connery turned eighty last week, and there were all manner of celebrations. I can’t really add too much that hasn’t already been said about the legendary actor, with his smooth Scottish accent and effortless charm, but I got thinking about Sean Connery and what I think of when I hear the name or what I associate him with. And, without a doubt, it’s that thick Scottish accent, which just makes even me weak at the knees when I hear it.

I have something I need to get off my (very hairy) chest...

I think it’s a testament to just how much genuine affection people have for Sean Connery that every single character he ever plays has had a thick Scottish brogue, and the audience is seldom really affected by it. I mean, sure we may make cheap jokes about how the Russian submarine in The Hunt for Red October was captained by a Russian with a very Scottish accent, with a second-in-command with a very Australian accent, but it’s hard to believe that anyone has been prevented from engaging with the film purely based on his accent. Compare the effect with the way that Keanu Reeves’ awful attempt at an English accent served to make Bram Stoker’s Dracula damn near impossible to watch.

It’s strange how – with a good enough actor – accents are seldom as distracting as you might imagine. Whether Sean Connery is playing a Spanish prince (Highlander) or an Irish police officer (The Untouchables), his accent never changes or even really flucuates. I can’t, for example, think of a movie where he plays down his accent – compared, for example, with how actors like Liam Neeson and Brendan Gleeson do “tone down” their Irishness in American films (not that you’d ever mistake the resulting accents for American).

Anthony Hopkins does something similar – where he’ll modulate his tone depending on his role, but his elocution is always distinctly British (though he is Welsh), even when playing a CIA agent (Bad Company) or an immigrant serial killer (The Silence of the Lambs). In a way, I envy this appoach. I can see the argument that a high-ranking American intelligence official with a foreign accent might be a deal breaker for the audience, but I think it’s certainly no less grating than a poor attempt at a genuine accent.

Okay, now THAT stretches my reasonable suspension of disbelief...

I mean, if we’re going to apply the logic the other way around – American actors playing foreign characters – I generally find it a lot less cringeworthy if there’s no attempt at an accent, particularly in a film like Valkyrie where – let’s face it – the characters hould really be speaking German rather than English with a German accent. Maybe it’s what might be deemed “an acceptable break from reality”, in the same way that action movies would be boring if action heroes bruised the came way that regular folk like us do – I accept what I’m presented with because I want to enjoy the film. Or maybe it’s just that attempting to act in an accent can bring down even the strongest actors – Ordinary Decent Criminal might have been a suspect film on its own merits, but the cast’s attempts to sound Irish were the real crime.

Of course, this isn’t to diminish the contributions of actor who can pull it off. I mean, Daniel Day-Lewis was phenomenal in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood while wrestling with two particularly difficult accents (accents, which, arguably, were so difficult because they don’t exist any more – think about that). Hell, he’s really the only member of the cast of Nine to attempt an Italian accent, despite being (mostly) surrounded by Italian characters – which, as mentioned above, feels a little strange because you’d imagine (being an Italian in Italy) he’d spend most his his time speaking the language. Still, the performance is solid enough that I hadn’t really thought too much about it before I mentioned his name.

I accept that their voice is a very important tool in an actor’s arsenal – as much as their physical appearance can convince you of the character they’re playing, it’s the delivery of the lines which sell it. And yet, I can think of a whole rake of performers who can get by using their distinctive voice without too much alteration. Connery, of course, is the first to come to mind – but what of Christopher Walken’s (quite frankly bizarre) speech patterns and weird accent. Hell, in his later years, Al Pacino has shown a preference towards using the same speech patterns for his characters (Carlito’s Way is really the only film from the nineties on where Al Pacino didn’t sound like he does in everything else.

I don’t know. I just find it remarkable that Sean Connery has pulled it off, and none of us have really batted an eyelid – we just accept it as a fact of life. Maybe that’s a true measure of the man’s appeal and charisma – something that solidifies him as a great leading man and screen presence. He doesn’t need to alter his voice to convince us he is who he says he is – be he a space cop, a submarine captain, an archeologist’s father, a British secret agent, a British secret agent imprisoned on Alcatraz, an Irish beat cop… the list goes on.

I don’t know, it’s been a bit of ramble – but Connery just has that effect on me. Just read it in your head with a thick Scottish accent and it’ll be all right.

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4 Responses

  1. I think it’s definitely down to the quality of the acting and charisma of the person – Someone like Pierce Brosnan would be an example of how it’s not done :) He often goes for just a standardised accent, rather than people like Daniel Day who seem to go for a more..not even colloquial..but a unique, personalised version of an accent, as if little habits are specific to the voice of the person they are trying to portray.

    The elegance that people like Hopkins bring to the screen means that they could be doing a version of Colin Farrell’s shockin’ accent in Ondine and I’d still be quite likely to be enchanted by them!

    I think that if an actor develops a convincing version of a dialect for a role, it still requires some more work to use it correctly – Some actors manage to get a handle on the accent, but they use it to their detriment, because they develop an overly patterned version, rather than allowing emotion to seep into the delivery and intonation, allowing more spontaneity and individuality to the sound.

    We need to invent a movie esperanto :)

    Also, that second Connery picture will haunt me. Thanks a lot.

    • You’ve never seen Zardoz?

      It’s the Wizard of Oz. Just with Sean Connery. In a leather diaper (which has to be uncomfortable).

  2. Sean Connery’s accent – http://www.seanconneryspeaking.com

    hilarious, stupid, ridiculous.

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