Anne Hathaway's 'One Day' Accent: A Defense
The critics panning "One Day," Lone Scherfig's adaptation of the bestselling novel by David Nicholls, like to bring up The Accent. "Uneven." "Intermittent." "Shaky." A product of the "Michael Fassbender School of Mix 'n' Match Accents." One wise guy wonders why Scherfig didn't just turn the main character into an exchange student from New Jersey so as to avoid having The Accent at all. Meanwhile, the language used to describe its failure is applied even more broadly to the movie's star. Anne Hathaway's accent may be shaky, go the naysayers, but her performance is practically a Richter nine.
Is it possible Hathaway meant to equivocate? Her character, Emma Morley, is also never still. In search of something better, she leaves a middle-class life in Yorkshire for a posh university in Edinburgh, eventually landing the kind of Parisian writerly life that's only found in the movies. As Emma's fortunes shift, it's not unreasonable to imagine her accent moving as well, in the direction she wants it to go, a Yorkshire lilt drifting into the anonymous Received Pronunciation of the British educated classes (it happens). Like Hathaway, Emma would be putting it on.
This is the evolution Hathaway seems to have tried and failed to consistently document. Her university Emma is pointedly different from her Emma in Paris (via dialectblog). The first is musical -- a clumsy nod to a speech so slippery, its own people increasingly don't know it. The second is chipped and marmish, not so far off, in fact, from the well-known voice of Hathaway's first onscreen mentor, Julie Andrews.
According to Ben Trawick-Smith, an actor and dialectic scholar who communes with the like-minded at his site dialectblog, "[Hathaway] clearly makes the latter sound less "Northern" than the former, which is a "pretty darn nuanced thing for an actor to do."
The timeframe of the film -- taking place on one day each year, over 20 years -- only would have made it harder. The filming didn't occur in sequence, requiring Hathaway to play a 36-year-old Emma one day, and a 25-year-old one the next.
Paul Meier, a voice coach who runs the English dialect archive at the University of Kansas, calls the slow shedding of Emma's dialect a "hard trick" even a British actress would find challenging.
"My heart goes out to her," he says, of Hathaway. "It's a specific kind of skill, like juggling or roller skating. You can be lousy at dialects and a great actor, and you can be great at dialects and a lousy actor."
Meier saw Hathaway do a British accent once before -- as the White Queen in Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland."
"I can't remember her accent at all," he says. "That means it was good." (For examples of movie accents that are not good, check out our gallery of horrors.)
To judge Hathaway's evolution in "One Day," listen to her accent at the beginning and end of the film. We've eliminated the video, so you can focus on the accent without any visual distractions:
Here's Hathaway doing her best Yorkshire:
And here's her RP toward the end:
She certainly doesn't nail every turn of phrase, but it's worth noting the distinct shift.
As for the real thing, the Yorkshire accent ranges wildly even across the region, though as the BBC notes, its been watered down over the years to the point of near-extinction. To understand the nuance Hathaway had to master, check out the difference between a West Yorkshire and a North Yorkshire accent recorded within 60 years of each other, courtesy of Meier's International Dialects of English Archive. (Also our guide to speaking like a Yorkshireman).
A white female, born in 1912, and raised in Greetland, West Yorkshire:
A white female, born in 1976, and raised in Harrogate, North Yorkshire:
What do you think of Hathaway's decision to honor such a tricky role? Should she have accepted defeat and just gone RP? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.