Get you, wee man: There’s nothing wrong with my accent – and you shouldn’t need subtitles

The Belfast ‘brogue’ in Kenneth Branagh’s new film is stumping some US reviewers

Buckle up for a long and angry awards season. At this time of year we traditionally look forward to warming our winter souls with fury at British (and a few American) commentators claiming Saoirse Ronan for the United Kingdom. This year it looks as if the source of ire will be commentary on Kenneth Branagh's Belfast.

The autobiographical film, set in the director's home city during the late 1960s, has just premiered to largely positive reviews at Telluride Film Festival. There will be many variations on reductive phrases such as – thank you, Hollywood Reporter – "the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics". But what has really got the media panting are disobliging comments about the Belfast accent (my accent, I'll have you know!).

Writing in Variety, Peter Debruge, who was honest enough to admit that he didn't know the director was from Northern Ireland, addressed the Branagh clan's transfer to Britain when Ken was just a lad. "His family got out and moved to Reading, England, when he was 9 years old, just as the Troubles were coming to a boil, which spared him the accent and what could have been a premature end," Debruge writes.

No American critics would be complaining if the characters in Belfast (the film, not the city) spoke with the rounded pseudo-Berkshire accents you hear on the greens of Malone Golf Club or the rugby pitches of Methodist College

“Spared”? Get you, wee man. Would he have been “spared” a Mexican accent if he had moved from Guadalajara? Would he have been “spared” a southern US accent if he had moved from New Orleans? We can say with some confidence that no actor who moved from the English home counties would be congratulated for escaping received pronunciation.

The Northern Irish accent has, along with just a few others in these islands – Birmingham’s is perhaps another – been a particular trigger for ridicule and performative misunderstanding. Branagh himself admits that, after the family moved to England, he was bullied about his Ulster vowels and worked hard to change them. His everyday speaking voice now shows little trace of his origins, but, without a thought, he can revert to his late father’s rich working-class accent.

The Hollywood Reporter went on to inadvertently trigger yet more Irish puffing with its consideration of possible miscomprehension. "Most of the story is told through Buddy's eyes, and young Hill is a marvellous camera subject," Stephen Farber wrote of Jude Hill, the film's juvenile lead. "Unfortunately, he also speaks in a thick Irish brogue that is not always easy for American ears to comprehend. Some of the other actors are equally difficult to understand. This is a movie that definitely would benefit from subtitles."

"Brogue"? He will be moving to "Eire" and speaking "Gaelic" next. I have not yet seen the film, and therefore should be saying nothing specific about its content, but the trailer does suggest that the excellent cast – Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan as the boy's parents; Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench as his grandparents – speak in a reasonably unchallenging approximation of the working-class Belfast accent. Nobody from the remote fiefdom south of Newry should have much trouble understanding.

There has, in the film industry, occasionally been a temptation to rub off the working-class corners of Northern Irish accents and present more anglicised versions for American consumption. No American critics would be complaining if the characters in Belfast (the film, not the city) spoke with the rounded pseudo-Berkshire accents you hear on the greens of Malone Golf Club or the rugby pitches of Methodist College. You know? The voice that Jamie Dornan, an alumnus of that secondary school, uses in everyday speech. You know? The voice I use when I’m bellowing at US journalists for their snooty attitude towards an inexhaustibly fecund Irish vernacular.

All that said, overseas viewers should be listened to when they find any regional accent hard to understand (as long as they mention the fact politely). This is not an unreasonable observation. If Belfast had premiered at the overlapping Venice Film Festival, from which I have just returned, none of the Americans would be complaining about not catching every line. Every film I saw in English there was subtitled in both Italian and the language being spoken. In Spencer, Kristen Stewart's Princess Diana has her crisp RP laid out at the bottom of the screen. The same happened for Benedict Cumberbatch's Montana drawl in The Power of the Dog.

There was some sneering when English commentators suggested they couldn't catch every word in Derry Girls, but no frothing will stop those thus bewildered from switching on Channel 4's subtitles. Fair enough

The practice has kicked up some controversy. Owen Gleiberman, Debruge's colleague at Variety, was not happy about it. "I find them incredibly distracting," he told his own publication. "At a film festival, you want your eyes to be on the screen, not glued to the dialogue just below it. But when the [English] words are there, you often end up reading them." Meanwhile, non-anglophone attendees who have English as a second language were greatly profiting from the innovation. It is easier to read a foreign language than to hear it.

TV viewers have already made the shift. It is now not uncommon for everyday folk to leave the subtitles on when watching the smaller screen. I have had them on for the muttery dialogue in Vigil, the BBC’s current subaquatic detective series. There was some sneering when English commentators suggested they couldn’t catch every word in Derry Girls, but no frothing will stop those thus bewildered from switching on Channel 4’s subtitles. Fair enough.

If it is felt that the dialogue in Belfast, or any other film from any other country, is proving hard to catch then, as the Hollywood Reporter suggests, by all means issue some US prints with subtitles. Branagh's monochrome film is being much compared to Alfonso Cuarón's Roma. Words at the bottom of the screen did nothing to impair enjoyment of that film. Yes, it was in Spanish, but you know what I mean.

Belfast opens in Ireland on November 11th

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