There seems to be an interesting correlation of linguistic cadence between British and U.S. Southern that enables actors from Great Britain to mimic southern dialects so much easier. Likely, it’s the emphasized vowels and certain consonants that those with British accents can easily master compared to flatter northern or Midwest cadences. Whatever it may be, Colin Firth and Emily Blunt are the next thespian Brits doing convincing southern accents in the new “Arthur Newman.”
If the above film is ultimately getting critically ripped to shreds, it’s an interesting evolution of British actors mastering the American language over the last 80 years. With the ever-increasing influence of British actors becoming more popular in America than in the United Kingdom, it’s not challenging to see why the British would assimilate an American dialect. Regardless, some are just more astute to it than others.
And much of that is ironic when you consider Vivien Leigh was one of the first British actresses to play an American character (Scarlett O’ Hara). Yes, it was a southern character, yet Leigh never really bothered to put on a southern accent in ‘”Gone With the Wind.” If she played down her British accent somewhat, it’s still very noticeable throughout the entire movie.
By the time she played another southerner (Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”), she finally managed to sound slightly more southern, likely due to her consuming performances of the role on stage. British actors portraying an American were fairly rare then, including Leigh’s husband at the time, Sir Laurence Olivier, avoiding playing such characters throughout most of his career.
It’s only been in the last 25 years when a Brit managed to skip across the pond and startle audiences with an American dialect that was on the nose. While Kate Winslet managed it fairly well 19 years ago in “Titanic”, male British actors have done an impeccable job. Just look at the work of Bob Hoskins (in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”), Hugh Laurie, and Damian Lewis to see how American a Brit can truly become.
Those who don’t know Hugh Laurie’s comedy history in the U.K. would swear he was a true-blooded American in his long-running “House.” The same goes for Damian Lewis who played very American Major Dick Winters in “Band of Brothers”, and now plays former prisoner of war Major Sergeant Nicholas Brody in “Homeland.” At times, it’s startling to hear Lewis break into his normal British accent when he shows up to receive awards.
For television, many might say Andrew Lincoln has mastered the southern accent better than any British actor ever has for AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” With that perfect of assimilation, it makes you wonder if some British actors are capable of talking American all the time and only use their British accents on the side. Abilities like that have to be linguistic evolution rather than mere practicing in front of a mirror.
So how do Colin Firth and Emily Blunt do at their southern accents in “Arthur Newman?” They’re brilliantly natural and seem to be progressing the idea that the Brits can play U.S. southern better than real southerners can. Whether American actors can play British just as well may have to wait until U.S. actors are hired to play the royals in a way that isn’t intended as satire.