The idea that the English language has a monopoly in cinema should surprise absolutely nobody. The power of Hollywood meant American culture dominated screens for more than a century, and for as long as there have been moving pictures directors have been adapting foreign ideas to make them more palatable to Western audiences. But Child 44 – an upcoming film starring British actors like Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman playing Russian characters – begs the question of exactly where we should draw the line. The world we live in and the culture we share are both becoming increasingly multinational, so why do we still seem reluctant to listen to stories when they’re told in any language other than our own?
This isn’t just a UK problem, or even an Anglophone problem. In France, for example, a huge percentage of films and even TV shows are foreign imports, and almost all of them are dubbed for wider release. Imagine having to spend all of your time watching films and shows where the audio didn’t quite match up to the movement of characters’ mouths – it would be maddening. So why do it? Simple: because somehow producers have got it into their heads that audiences won’t (or maybe can’t) watch films with subtitles.
One only needs to take a cursory glance at the numbers to see what a massive pile of merde this statement is. Across the Channel, French filmmakers are jostling for a chance to show their films on British screens. Since 2011, their contribution to the market has exploded – between 2011 and 2012, the number of French films shown here in the UK leapt from 49 to 72, and it’s only been going up since then.
Then there’s the Scandinavian market – arguably the most successful strain of foreign popular culture to make its way to British film and television. While films like Let The Right One In and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were modest successes overseas, their English-language remakes struggled to find a connection with audiences who almost certainly saw them with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Films like these also debunk the frankly insulting argument that nobody wants to read subtitles. After all, the very fact that so many of these books are based on bestselling novels should be enough evidence that cinemagoers not only can read, but in fact quite enjoy reading.
Just as dubbing takes away from the nuance of a foreign film, casting English-speaking actors in foreign roles runs the risk of reducing nuanced roles to a series of two-dimensional stereotypes. Take Gary Oldman – one only needs to look at films like Léon or The Fifth Element to get a feel for the kind of hammy villain he’ll probably end up playing in Child 44. Even when casting directors do use international talent, they use the wrong nationalities. Child 44’s director Daniel Espinosa has cast actors like Vincent Cassel (French) and Noomi Rapace (Swedish) – names that are bound to draw a bigger audience – ignoring dozens of talented Russian actors in the process.
Deciding to pass on foreign talent in favour of home-grown stars as a method of inflating your opening weekend is one thing, but it also creates some uncomfortable questions about whitewashing – something we would all have hoped to be long dead in 2015. Russell Crowe’s directorial debut The Water Diviner stars French/Ukranian actress Olga Kurylenko as a Turkish hotel owner; Kurylenko is a great actress, but a dusky complexion and a vaguely foreign accent do not a convincing Turk make, just as a vaguely Eastern-European accent doesn’t make Noomi Rapace Russian.
At best this just ends up being funny; even great actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman can only do so much when encumbered by a silly foreign accent. At worst, it can be outright offensive. Just last year Ridley Scott faced huge backlash when asked about the almost-entirely white cast for his biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, saying: “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.” Yes, those were his actual words. In a world where directors can get away with making comments like that, and a small but vocal portion of the internet can explode because a black man is cast as a Stormtrooper in Star Wars: Episode VII, it’s hard not to see the spectre of Mr Yunioshi (Mickey Rooney’s awful Japanese caricature in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) rearing its ugly head once again.
There’s an old joke that says that being British involves German cars, Irish pubs, Belgian beer, Indian food, and American shows on Japanese TV sets. It’s great that we live in such a huge melting-pot of a society. But that doesn’t mean that we have the right to hijack other cultures’ stories and water them down simply because of a perceived fear of audiences distracted by the taxing mental strain of subtitles. We gave up our empire for good reason, and the continuing English hegemony of our cinema screens can only be damaging to our cultural development.