Planet According to the M

Why Is the Australian Accent so Hard?


The Australian accent is, evidently, one of the easiest to conceal. That’s why the Hemsworth brothers are anchoring every major blockbuster film from now to 2032. Virtually every Australian actor seems to lose theirs the minute they hit the international circuit. Well, except Sam Worthington. But for an accent that is so easy to lose it seems to be an impossible one to acquire. Most Americans seem to think we are basically British but drunk. ‘Cobber’ is not a thing that we say. At least not since Queen Victoria was on the throne.

Every time the accent is attempted on the big screen we all cower into a ball, rock back and forth and ask the gods of the cinema to just make them stop. There have been marvellous performances of faux Australians over the years. Jane Campion’s outback drama Holy Smoke!, a criminally overlooked movie driven by an amazing performance from Kate Winslet playing a cult member being deprogrammed. She worked under the tutelage of vocal coach Victoria Mielewska whose CV is a who’s-who of who didn’t fuck it up: Mental, The Dressmaker. But every once in a while you will encounter an Australian accent that makes you want to bash an actor in the face with an angry rabies-infested lobster. Case in point: Pacific Rim. The global robots vs sea monsters apocalypse tornado of bullshit masquerading as a film is loved by many. But despite the enormously fun action and the presence of Idris Elba, the film was basically dead to me the moment they introduced the two Australian characters with those noted Australian names ‘Hercules’ and ‘Chuck’ Hansen. One of the actors was American, the other was English — both sounded like they had suffered a stroke. So, in descending order: here are the screen’s Australian accents from Good to Bad to ‘Why are my ears bleeding now?’. 

Mental (Australia) (2012) Director: P.J. Hogan

When trying to perfect the Australian accent, it probably helps to be partnered with an Australian. Liev Schreiber is married to Naomi Watts and in this P.J. Hogan film he’s the exceptional non-local. The Moochmoore family live in the sleepy coastal town of Dolphin Heads. There’s mum Shirley (Rebecca Gibney), dad Barry (Anthony Lapaglia), who is also a local politician, and their five daughters who are all convinced they have various mental illnesses. Shirley is also suffering an extended period of mental ill-health and often retreats into the fantasy world of her favourite musical, The Sound of Music. When she’s not doing that she’s busy ordering huge amounts of furniture. She tells neighbours her husband won on a game show. Barry can cope with the fictional Sound of Music world, but the furniture is a step too far and Shirley is packed off to a mental institution. Barry convinces the kids that everything is fine and mum is just on holidays in Wollongong. At the same time he makes a particularly dubious decision to hire a hitchhiker called Shaz (Toni Collette) to look after the family and from there everything really kicks off. Because the film does not yet feature a sufficient number of Australian stereotypes, there’s also an eccentric shark hunter named Trevor Blundell (Liev Schreiber). His accent is perfect. Terrifyingly perfect. Honestly, it took me fifteen minutes to work out that it was Liev Schreiber in the role. Most critics hated the film, but it actually captures the madcap insanity it seeks to showcase. While the script may seem utterly fanciful, director P.J. Hogan has said he based it on his mother’s mental breakdown when he was twelve. His father was also a politician who refused to tell anyone about his wife’s illness in case it hurt his electoral chances. And yes, as in the film, Hogan’s father really did recruit a hitchhiker to babysit the family.

The Fifth Estate (USA) (2013) Director: Bill Condon

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch specialises in playing nerds. Not your average nerd but nerds who are charismatic and, judging by the number of Cumbersnatch fans the world over, nerds who are a little bit hot. He perfected the type in Sherlock Holmes, received an Oscar nomination for it in 2014’s The Imitation Game and gave it an Australian twist as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate. The film begins in 2010 with Wikileaks’ release of the Afghan war logs and then flashes back to 2007, when Assange is just a young hacker with big ideas. But the focus is on the relationship between Assange and journalist Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), who met the Wikileaks founder in Berlin in 2007 and began working with him. Like all biopics, this film is ‘based on a true story’ with a whole lot of emphasis on that ‘based on’ qualification. It’s been adapted from a book by Domscheit-Berg who later fell out with Assange, allegedly because Julian refused to redact the personal details of sources in the document thus placing them at huge personal risk. Assange has disputed key events in the film and argued that the biggest mistake he made was hiring DomscheitBerg in the first place. The facts may be in dispute but the quality of the Australian accent from Cumberbatch is not. He nails it. And it’s not just the Australian accent: Assange himself has his own wonky accent to begin with. It’s nasal but also has a strong baritone element. He has a tendency to mumble in truncated sentences and Cumberbatch pulls it off admirably. Not that Assange agrees. I spoke to him in the Ecuadorian embassy during the 2013 Australian Federal Election campaign and he described Cumberbatch’s accent as ‘grating’. It’s worth pointing out that ‘grating’ and ‘entirely accurate to Assange’s accent’ are not mutually exclusive terms. Unfortunately though, the film is a mess. It should be a great story of intrigue and espionage, but it all falls flat. And the key obstacle, I suppose, is that it takes real skill to make hacking and computer-related activity look exciting on film. Films have made it work in the past: The Social Network based on the origin of Facebook is a good example. But that film had a great script where this one leans on ham-fisted visual metaphors and a godawful over the top musical score where the director seemed to be reaching for the sounds of a bush-doof rave without ever having been to one. And while Benedict Cumberbatch may have nailed the accent, the same can’t be said for the filmmaker’s knowledge of South America. When Assange appears at the Ecuadorian embassy at the end of the film, the flag in the background is actually Colombian.

Evil Angels (Australia/USA) (1988) Director: Fred Schepisi

Oh yes, we’re getting to the bottom of the barrel now. The film, which went by the name A Cry in the Dark outside of Australia, tells the story of Lindy Chamberlain (Meryl Streep). Based on a hugely controversial true story, here are the facts. The Chamberlains, Michael and Lindy, were camping at Uluru and woke up to find their newborn daughter, Azaria, was missing. A huge hunt ensued with the couple insisting that a dingo took their baby. While there was initial sympathy for the pair, suspicion soon fell on them, with a key part of the evidence being that Lindy didn’t act like a ‘normal’ mum who has just lost a child. She didn’t look sufficiently distraught for one thing. Public opinion swung against her, a trial found her guilty and jail time soon followed. It took three-and-a-half years for the murder case to be quashed and this film was released shortly after. Streep’s performance has been much debated over the years, but while her accent seems strained and never quite believable, it works as a Lindy Chamberlain accent as opposed to an Australian accent. The real Lindy has a New Zealand twang and perhaps where Meryl’s performance falls apart is that it’s more of an impression than an interpretation. Which is odd for an actor who made a career out of nailing accents. The film itself is a courtroom drama, setting up the case against Lindy Chamberlain and then tearing it apart. It is a compelling story and accent aside, Streep’s performance makes it all work. It was a hard role — she had to appear as the cold and aloof Lindy that the public judged yet likeable so we sympathise. Fred Schepisi, who co-wrote and directed the film, intercut the courtroom drama with scenes where broad cross-sections of people discuss the case at dinner parties and on tennis courts. It’s a technique that works really well, showing you just how much the case was run by public opinion, wild rumours and gossip. 

Natural Born Killers (USA) (1994) Director: Oliver Stone

Natural Born Killers was a film designed to shock and titillate — it was set up as a critique of the emerging 24/7 media and of celebrity criminals. The story concerns lovers and serial killers Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) and the tabloid news storm they create (led by Robert Downey Jr as a mulleted Australian TV host). Oliver Stone has long been intent on documenting every incremental stumble in the downfall of the American empire and this was his ‘1990s TV violence, media, tabloid TV, won’t someone please think of the children industrial military complex film’ designed to appeal to those who felt that exposure to violent games and junk had the potential to turn a child into a gleeful murderer. In this period of the 90s you had Marilyn Manson singing ballads to Beelzebub, Doom was allegedly teaching kids how to kill, and then came Natural Born Killers. Stone knew it had the power to offend. Indeed, that was his intent. In the DVD liner notes he wrote with typical subtlety, ‘Didn’t Kubrick and A Clockwork Orange offend the perceived borders of violence? Did not, years before, Buñuel and Dali, with an eyeball and a razor, shock and offend?’ He’s right, they did. And yes, Natural Born Killers was a film that co-opted media violence to tell a story about media violence, but the only thing that remains shocking about this film today is Robert Downey Jr’s attempt at an Australian accent. Apparently Downey Jr. had been hanging out with controversial TV host Steve Dunleavy, an Australian columnist and journalist of the Rupert Murdoch stable that helped launch Tabloid TV in the US with the American version of A Current Affair. RDJ decided he wanted to channel Dunleavy’s accent into the role. More likely he channelled the cocktail of drugs he was said to be on at the time. The result is a fucking awful accent. But while Downey Jr’s Australian accent was a bit off it was in fact a good impression of Dunleavy. Where Downey Jr overdoes the vowels he absolutely nails Dunleavy’s on-camera faux self-righteousness. The film perhaps lacks some of the potency it once had. In the wake of Columbine and 9/11, this kind of violence pales into insignificance. There are now entire TV channels dedicated to crime, courts and celebrities. Even the scatter-gun MTV aesthetic of jerky handheld camerawork feels painfully dated. But that accent. It remains the single most shocking element of this film. So broad. So weird. So cockney, so nothing like what we sound like. In RDJ’s defence he did make up for his accent decades later with Tropic Thunder wherein he played a deadly serious Australian actor concerned with awards — let’s call him Crussel Rowe — who adopts blackface to play an African American. 

Excerpt from The Planet According to the Movies - a Travel Guide around the world based on movies.